Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Bet on the Net

Like any aspiring Olympian, Ahad Sarand is fighting for the opportunity to represent his country. He has the skill set, and the determination and grit, and in fact represented his birth country of Iran in the 1990 World Championship Games. An American citizen since 2006, Sarand is now making a comeback and wants to honor The United States in the 2020 Paralympic Games. This is the story of the wheelchair-using table tennis star, and his journey across the globe.

The Beginning

Born in Tabriz, Iran (a city of 1.5 million), Sarand was a typically-developed two year old, until he contracted polio. As a result, Sarand was paralyzed from the waist down. In an effort to help their son regain his health, Sarand’s parents sold all of their possessions, including their home, to help pay for medical treatment.

The money lasted long enough to correct Sarand’s right leg and to reverse the paralysis, but ultimately there wasn’t enough money to correct his left leg. As a result, his left leg is three inches shorter than his right leg
and Sarand walks with a pronounced and labored gait.

“In Iran, medical coverage is not like it is America. In America, both of my legs would have been fixed,” Sarand laments.

At school, Sarand was bullied and berated, but found solace in table tennis. He was a quick study and soon joined his middle school team. A coach for athletes with disabilities recognized Sarand’s abilities and recruited him to compete in para athletics. Sarand never looked back.

A Distant Dream

After years of honing his skills, Sarand became the number one Iranian national player in his division, which is for athletes who walk but have to use wheelchairs to travel long distances. The culmination of this hard work was representing his home country in the 1990 World Championships in the Netherlands.

After the Netherlands World Champion-ships, Sarand and his wife Tahereh decided to focus on immigrating to the United States, to make a better life for themselves and the family they wanted to start. This process was tiresome, long and daunting and would ultimately take 16 years to accomplish.

“This process was difficult. After table tennis, I worked for the Iranian Social Security office and focused a lot of my free time on the immigration processes,” says Sarand. Finally, in 1996, Sarand received the news that he had obtained a green card. The Sarand family was coming to America.

A New Chapter

“I arrived in America with my wife, two suitcases and a sick two year old. We only had $100 and because of a customs error, my family and I had to stay at JFK airport for more than 24 hours,” recalls Sarand with a hint of laughter.

With assistance from his brother-in-law, Sarand and his family settled into life in northern Franklin County. Sarand worked the graveyard shift (because it paid $1.50 more than the day shift) returning shopping carts at the Meijer in Orange Township. With his mobility impairment, Sarand faced additional barriers returning carts in the snow, heat, and rain. After his shifts ended, he would wash dishes at any restaurant or hotel that would have him.

After eighteen months of returning carts and honing his English, Sarand climbed the ladder at Meijer and started working registers and doing other jobs inside. Other challenges made the family’s transition to their new American life rockier still. Sarand fought physical pain, and his wife became unable to work outside the home after an injury.

They persisted, and as the years went by, America began to feel more like home. They added a second child, Yashar, to the mix. The growing family became part of their community, the children were thriving at Worthington schools, and Sarand was able to quit Meijer when he was hired in translation services and database building at Chemical Abstract Services, close to the Old North district.

In 2006, the Sarand family finally became citizens.

“The events of September 11th made the citizenship process take a little longer, but I understood,” says Sarand. Finally, they were living the American dream through pure determination, hard work and dedication—the culmination of which may be the oldest child, Peiman, recently graduating from The Ohio State University with a degree in Special Education.

Return to Glory

Sarand never quit playing table tennis, and with the encouragement of his family, began to train for his first competitive matches since 1990. The goal is the same—competing at a high level and representing his country with dignity and pride—but now the home country is different. This time around, Sarand wants to represent the Red, White, and Blue.

In a nutshell, qualifying for the Paralympic games is complicated process that is expensive and time consuming. On top of training for two hours a day, four days a week, and the money it takes to travel the globe for qualifying events, aspiring Paralympians have a tiered system of accumulating needed points for the right to represent their country.

In Costa Rica in 2017, Sarand won the bronze medal, only two points shy of a silver. He does not have the continued resources or time to globe trot to accumulate all of the points necessary to represent America. However, he does have a plan—bypassing all of the travel, time, and expenses by winning the gold at the Parapan Games in Peru in 2019. If Sarand can do this, he will secure an automatic bid to the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo.

Sarand loves America, has worked hard to make a successful life for his family and has overcome the stigma of having a disability, all while starting from scratch in a new country. There aren’t many better examples of what it means to be an American success story than Ahad Sarand and his family. In fact, there aren’t many better examples of what it means to be American.

To help Sarand hire a coach, and get to the 2019 Parapan Games in Peru, you can donate to his Go Fund Me: gofundme.com/2020tokyoparalympics.

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