At first Saman Soltani didn’t believe the urgent instructions she was receiving from her frantic parents at the other end of the phone.

“Don’t come back, hide somewhere,” they pleaded with their bewildered daughter, who was waiting at Barcelona Airport to catch a flight home to Tehran.

It was only when she heard the sobs from her mother and father that she realised they were being serious. As she soon learned, Iran’s feared morals police had been looking for her, and there was absolutely no doubt she would be arrested the minute she set foot back in the country of her birth.

This is the story of Saman Soltani, a 27-year-old kayak paddler who this month was told she had been selected to receive an International Olympic Committee refugee sponsorship, which might well lead to her competing at next year’s Paris Olympics.

It’s also the story of a humble Austrian man, Uwe Schlokat, who received the panicked early morning phone call from Saman on the day her parents had told her it was not safe for her to return to Iran. Uwe was the only person Saman knew in Europe.

Between the sobbing and the hysteria, Uwe quickly grasped he was Saman’s only hope. A friendship that had begun five years earlier when Uwe was visiting Iran was now being called upon to protect the life of a young, scared Iranian woman.

The Federation didn’t support us, especially me as a girl

Saman didn’t even know where Uwe lived. When he told her to fly to Vienna, Austria, she bought a one-way ticket and was there by midday.

“I was sleeping, then suddenly the phone was ringing,” Uwe said.

“I ignored it, but then the WhatsApp messages came in – it was Saman, I could understand it was an emergency. I didn’t really understand, because I was half asleep and she was crying and was obviously upset.

“I just tried to improve her mental state, tried to get her out of her sadness.”

Saman Soltani has always loved sport. She was born into a sporting family, and started swimming at the age of six. By the age of eight she was competing in races, and was also trying out artistic swimming. This is where her first real sporting love blossomed.

Only problem was, in Iran artistic swimming for girls was frowned upon. It didn’t dampen Saman’s enthusiasm, and she went on to become Iran’s national champion for ten consecutive years. But she was not allowed to compete internationally.

That was when she had her first introduction to kayaking. She was immediately attracted to the sport because the paddling action was very similar to the muscle movements in freestyle swimming. Everyone told her it was too late to start a new sport, which only made the teenager even more determined.

Two years later she was on the Iranian national team, and then in 2018 she won a silver medal at the Asian U23 championships. She was Iran’s big hope for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

And then Covid hit.

“The Federation didn’t support us, especially me as a girl,” Saman said.

“We had so many ups and downs, and then I decided to stop. I had started coaching, so I focused on that.”

But when one door closes, another opens. Saman had an opportunity to return to her first sporting love, but it would carry risks.

“In 2022 I had an invitation to a high-end artistic training camp in Barcelona. This was my childhood dream,” Saman said.

The police and the Moral Guardians started to search for me

“I had to be a role model for these girls, and for so many girls and women in Iran.

“On the 21st August, 2022, I competed at the artistic invitational event in Barcelona, and I posted some images on my Instagram account, to let people know what I had seen and learned at this camp.

“I was the first Iranian woman in history to compete at this sort of camp.”

Of course, Saman was proud of what she had achieved. Back in Tehran, people in authority were less impressed.

“It became a really big problem, and the police and the Moral Guardians started to search for me,” Saman said.

“My family didn’t tell me until the last day of the camp. I was at the airport and they called me and told me ‘don’t come back, hide somewhere for one or two weeks until everything would calm down and be okay.

“I thought they were kidding me, but then they both started crying, and I knew they were serious.”

It quickly became apparent though that the heat in Iran would die down in two weeks. Instead the situation spiralled out of control, as brave women and men took a stand against the treatment the morals police were handing out to women who dared to challenge their authority.

Stuck in Vienna, and with no prospect of a safe return, Saman could only watch on in horror. When she had last been in Iran she was regularly in the newspapers and on the television. And she knew the police had already been looking for her.

“One week after arriving in Vienna this revolution, with women fighting for freedom, started in Iran,” she said.

“The pressure became more and more, and they started to kill the people because of their hair. Imagine me as a member of the national team, participating at the artistic swimming camp, so it was not accepted at all.

I had nightmares every night, I cried myself to sleep

“I lost three of my friends in this revolution, and so many of my friends, members of the national team, were in the prison. They tortured them, and two members of the canoe family was also in the prison. It was so much pressure on people who were famous.”

There was a sense of helplessness, being so far away and knowing her friends were all being targeted. Even though she was safe in Vienna, she was feeling tormented.

“I was panicking, I had a really hard time. I had nightmares every night, I cried myself to sleep, I dreamt someone had come and was forcing me to go back,” she said.

“I lost everything. I lost my family, I lost my job, I had a car, I had a gym – I lost it all for nothing. I think its my right to live freely, and to learn, and to improve and to follow my dreams.

“I had two choices – become depressed and die there, or start one more fight for my dreams.”

It was her friend Uwe who snapped her out of her depression. He pushed her to start paddling again, driving her to and from training, joining her up with a local club. She didn’t want to do it, but Uwe, who could see how she was struggling, insisted.

Uwe also contacted the Austrian Canoe Federation and sent in Saman’s CV. The Federation was very happy to welcome Saman to their program, Uwe and his friends bought her a new paddle, and very soon she was loving the sport again.

But she was very out of condition. At first she struggled to paddle five kilometres, but within six months Saman was entering the 20 kilometre Austrian canoe marathon. Not long after she won Austrian kayak sprint titles.

Then came the exciting news that she had been granted asylum in Austria. The sport was proving a great distraction, but of course, not a day goes by that she doesn’t think of her parents and her pet dog back in Tehran.

“In one second your life can change. It’s the hardest part of my life,” she said.

Uwe was always beside me, he never left me to get lonely

“When I get tired in my training, I just imagine them there, because it is so hard. I never know when I can see them again. I want to get to the Olympics so I can bring them here.

“Uwe was always beside me, he never left me to get lonely. He is like my father, mother, brother, sister – he has been everything, but I want to see my family.

“It was so hard to integrate into this culture, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any friends, but Uwe took me everywhere, he looked after me. I have everything from him. He treats me like he treats his sons.

“I owe my life to him. He was the reason I started paddling, he is the reason I am here – he is like a guru.”

Uwe is not a kayaker. But he now knows the sport, and he knows what it will mean for Saman if she gets to the Olympics next year. Just last week he bought two tickets to watch the canoe sprint in Paris.

“She wants me to be proud of her, but I love her just the way she is,” Uwe said.

“Even if she didn’t achieve anything I would love her. She’s such a sweet person, so charismatic. Of course I am proud. I see her happiness and her joy when she achieves things.

 “I am so impressed by her mindset, I haven’t seen this kind of mindset in any other young people I know.”

Sebastian Cuattrin is a four-time Olympian who now heads the ICF’s development program. Every year he sees dozens of athletes progress through the ICF’s highly-acclaimed talent identification program.

He has no doubt Saman has what it takes to make the top.

“I am sure, if not next year in Paris, by Los Angeles in 2028 Saman will be competing for Olympic medals,” Cuattrin said.

Saman is embarrassed by the prediction, but Uwe has no doubt Cuattrin’s confidence is well placed. And Saman is hoping, if she does qualify for Paris, her parents will be able to fly to France to watch her compete. It will be an emotional reunion.

“If you talk to my dad, he would say one of the biggest regrets in his life is that he could never see me in the swimming pool, he could never cheer for me and he could never understand what I was doing.”

Canoe Sprint
Canoe Marathon