Paralympics: Iranian giant Mehrzad begins journey to summit of sitting volleyball


At the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, as the Iranian delegation entered the Maracanã it was hard to take your eyes off the giant figure in their midst. At 2.46m high (over 8 feet), sitting volleyball player Morteza Mehrzadselakjani is the tallest man in Iran and by some distance the tallest athlete at Rio 2016.

Photo: Iranian sitting volleyball team playing against China; Copyright: Rio 2016/Paulo Mumia

Mehrzad proved to be an almost unstoppable attacking force in Iran's opening victory against China on Saturday (10 September); © Rio 2016/Paulo Mumia

Morteza Mehrzad, as he is known, was born in 1987. By the age of 16, he was already over 1.9m high. Diagnosed with acromegaly, a rare condition resulting from excess growth hormone, Mehrzad normally uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around: a serious pelvis fracture suffered when he was 15 year old stopped his right leg from growing and makes walking difficult. Mehrzad began playing sitting volleyball five years ago, after a coach saw him on television and instantly spotted his potential.

Towering over the net, which is just 1.15m off the floor, Mehrzad's height gives him a major natural advantage in the sport, in which no.1 ranked Iran is a global powerhouse and the silver medallists from London 2012.

After a long apprenticeship in Iranian clubs,  in March this year Mehrzad was called up to the national side and won the Intercontinental Cup in his first appearance at a major competition. "We have given him the platform to be Paralympic champion," coach Hadi Rezaeigarkani said after Iran debuted at Rio 2016 with a comfortable 3-0 victory over China on Saturday (10 September). "We are preparing him to make history."

On his Paralympic debut, coming off the reserves' bench in the second set, Mehrzad made a big impression not only on the game but also on the Brazilian fans in Riocentro Pavilion 6, who cheered his every move. While Mehrzad may not be the most mobile or skillfull player on the Iranian team, he is a powerful force in both attack and defence. His sheer size visibly disconcerts opponents. After he sealed the Iranian victory in the second set with an almost unstoppable serve, Mehrzad was taken off the court for the rest of the match.

"We're not going to show all our cards at the same time," coach Rezaeigarkani said. "We are going step by step, but we are training him to be the best in the world in two years' time. He used to be considered just as a strange guy and now he can be a champion."

On Monday (12 September), Iran will face off against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the reigning Paralympic champions. The two sides have an epic rivalry and have contested the last four Paralympic finals dating back to Sydney 2000. Iran have made no secret of the fact that at Rio 2016 they are out to avenge their defeat by the Bosnians at London 2012. Mehrzad may play a bigger part in Monday's contest, a potentially epic match that could – almost literally – put Mehrzad on his way to the very top of the world in sitting volleyball.; Source: Rio 2016

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