Nazanin Malaei, Women's Single Sculls, Islamic Republic of Iran, 2020 Olympic Games Regatta, Tokyo, Japan / World Rowing/Detlev Seyb
Nazanin Malaei, Women’s Single Sculls, Islamic Republic of Iran, 2021 Olympic Games Regatta, Tokyo, Japan / World Rowing/Igor Meijer

Her triumphant hand pointing at the sky as she glided to a stop was one of the top images of the Tokyo Olympics. Nazanin Malaei  stole the show last year in Japan when she achieved something no other Iranian woman had: a guaranteed top 12 finish at the Olympic Games.

What was undeniably one of the best performances in Tokyo was hard-fought for Nazanin Malaei, who started rowing at school in central Iran. Her journey, which took her to the national team and ultimately to her first Olympic Games, could have stopped after the first training sessions on the water.  “One coach said to me, ‘You are not good for rowing. You are good for coxing an eight.’, tells Malaei. “Athletes said to me, ‘You can’t go to the Olympics and be in a single, because every athlete in other countries coming to the Olympics are heavy and strong, and you are not’.”

Added to the doubters, were the difficult training conditions in Iran. “I had to train on a 12-year-old boat, and in Iran, we do not have a standard 2 km body of water. Before the Continental qualification regatta, I had a back injury and due to the severe pain, I could not train well. With these difficult conditions I tried to get myself physically and mentally prepared for the competition as good as possible.”

Malaei stole the show in Tokyo. She is “satisfied with my performance at the Olympic Games because I know the conditions under which I reached this level and position. Now my goal is to improve this position in the future.”

She also wants to use the experience from competing against the likes of Emma Twigg, Jeanine Gmelin or Magdalena Lobnig. “I hadn’t competed in any international regattas in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, I had no experience in that regard. I really want to get more experience and train with the vision that I will be stronger in the future.”

Hangzhou and Paris in sight

A month after the Tokyo Olympics, Malaei went back to training, with the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games in her radar – and the 2024 Paris Olympic Games in the back of her mind. But with the recent success comes high expectations. “Rowing is not really well-known in my country but after my performance, the attention of officials and people to this sport increased in Iran.  I have high goals and I hope that my performances will help rowing getting more exposure. Before the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, I wanted to be at least among the top 10 in the world, and I almost got it (she finished 11th in the rankings). I want to be among the top 6 at the 2024 Paris Olympics.”

Although she affirms that she is “her own model”, Malaei’s story is a source of inspiration for all young rowers in Iran. “If you really like the sport, try it. And when you try it, continue without getting tired and frustrated. Every time you are getting tired, think that this is exactly the point where you have to stand to win, the difference between a winner and a loser. I try to be better than ever before, every day, every year.”

Against all odds, Nazanin Malaei is becoming a name to watch in the women’s single sculls.

You can follow Nazanin’s journey through her Instagram