By Philip O’Connor and Rory Carroll
(Reuters) – With Tokyo 2020 looming, Iranian sprinter Maryam Toosi has been desperately trying to come to the U.S. to pursue her Olympic Games dream, but is still trying to overcome one seemingly insurmountable hurdle — President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The 31-year-old, who shot to fame by winning gold in the 400 meters at the 2012 Asian Indoor Championships while wearing a hijab headscarf, has been waiting in legal limbo for three years after applying for an American visa to train and compete.
Toosi wants to come to the U.S. to take advantage of the superior facilities, better coaching and a culture that celebrates track and field because she knows Tokyo could be her last shot at competing at an Olympics.
And since falling in love and getting engaged to Iranian-born U.S. citizen Moein Mohsen, a DJ in Los Angeles, she has been even more determined to make the move.
“Getting the visa would mean everything. Everything,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview from her current training camp in Cyprus.
“Moein travels here every other month, spending thousands of dollars to come see me … If he didn’t push me, I probably wouldn’t be in Cyprus right now training. I would have given up this dream.”
Toosi’s career has been one long battle to prove that the people who say her dreams are impossible have got it wrong.
“When I first started chasing the dream of winning a gold medal or even qualifying for the Asian Games, everyone made fun of me — the federation, all the other athletes,” she explained.
“They asked, ‘how are you going to even qualify with the hijab, or the training you do?’ Even with the lack of training, I was still able to set those records and win that medal, and I’m here in Cyprus to prove I can do it at the Olympics too.”
The Iranian record holder at 100m, 200m and 400m, Toosi has suffered the agony of missing out on Olympic qualification twice before, in part due to technical errors made by race officials.
After those disappointments, she applied for a visa so she could train in the U.S., but despite having her interview in August 2016, she has still not received a decision.
“The problem is that Maryam is stuck in administrative processing due to President Trump’s Presidential Proclamation 9645 — that is, the travel ban,” Parviz Malakouti, Toosi’s lawyer, told Reuters.
That proclamation, the third in a series of travel bans implemented in 2017, seriously restricts citizens of several, mostly Muslim-majority nations to get U.S. visas.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment on Toosi’s case.
Toosi believes that given the chance to train and prepare in the same manner as athletes like six-time Olympic champion Allyson Felix, she can qualify for Tokyo.
“When I met Allyson, I looked at her and I cried, because I realized that the difference between us was not talent. It was the training, the ability to prepare,” she explained.
COMPETING IN A HIJAB
Though she says her distinctive hijab is something of a hindrance on the track, she takes her position as a role model for Muslim women and girls very seriously.
“All the clothes that the other girls wear weigh about as much as my headscarf on its own. I have to wrap it tightly around me, but in another way, I don’t see it as a limitation. I am proud of my religion.
“When I first started competing, and all of a sudden a woman in a hijab was being seen next to Swedish girls or girls in regular track outfits, everybody was really shocked when they saw me,” she says.
“But after I started competing and breaking records, I started to see more and more females in hijabs.”
As Toosi continues to train in Iran and Cyprus, Malakouti is exploring all legal avenues to get her a visa while fiance Mohsen keeps rooting for her.
“I love Maryam, and I’m sad she hasn’t been able to reach anywhere close to her potential as a talented runner because of being stuck in Iran,” Mohsen said.
“I pray that Immigration gives her a travel ban waiver so she can come to the United States to live the American dream as an athlete and we can start our life together.”
(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington)