Sina Solouksaran- The Banished Mountain Biker

What would you do to fulfill your potential and follow your dreams?

In the spring of 2017 Sina Solouksaran, was fit and focused. Banished from Iran in 2011 due to religious persecution he’d endured years of uncertainty as a refugee. 2016 saw him working a fulltime job and racing in Colorado where he competed in 15 races at the pro-level. Solouksaran was on the podium for 13 of those races with 10 wins, his goal to be a professional mountain bike racer, seemed to be in reach. After a winter of intense training in Utah the chance to place in the US Cup Mountain Bike Series felt possible. At the start of the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey California, life literally came crashing down and set off a series of events that left Solouksaran broke, seeking a new home and questioning why after working so hard, and enduring so much he felt farther from making his dream a reality than he’d ever felt before.

Solouksaran is matter of fact when he talks about the group wreck “When I wrecked, the first and middle finger of my left hand, got get bent backwards and I couldn’t close my grip on the handlebar.” Initially he thought he’d need a few weeks of recovery and physical therapy, but a virus that left him with a months long respiratory infection derailed his plans for the racing season and then life hit him full-on. He’d taken time off from his job at REI so he had no income,  the family that had been hosting him so he could race and train was no longer able to provide him housing, and his car broke down. With all of these things happening at once the injured and sick Solouksaran was overwhelmed, but he did not give up. He went back to work at REI, got another full-time job, found an apartment, got his car fixed, his hand healed and the respiratory infection cleared up. But training and racing has had to take a back burner, as the reality of survival has taken 1st priority. Solouksaran had to forego the 2018 racing season as he wants to gain financial security, pay off debt and save money so he can properly train and race in 2019. Solouksaran is not bitter, or angry, he is persevering through his hardships, but he does have many unanswered questions about why being Bahá’í has meant that he has no civil rights in his home country of Iran.

Bahá’í is Iran’s largest non-Muslim faith and the most persecuted. Religious decrees (Fatwas) are issued by the government against anyone who deals with people of the Bahá’í religion. But the persecution doesn’t start or stop with the people who deal with Bahá’í. Anyone who identifies as Bahá’í is denied employment, access to higher education, and civil rights. It should not go unnoticed that the Bahá’í religions core beliefs are based on equality, unity, freedom from prejudice and  the centrality of justice to all human endeavors. The teachings of 19th-century prophet Bahá’u’lláh, are the foundations of the religion and state that all religions have the same spiritual foundation and should be accepted.

Solouksaran was living his beliefs and convictions in May 2011 when he made a correction to the pre-travel forms for the Asian Championships at the office of the National Olympic Committee of the Islamic Republic of Iran. At that time he was 8 years into his mountain biking career, a member of the National team and the team’s fastest rider. Solouksaran was on track to become Iran’s highest-placing cyclist at the race in China and to represent his home country the following years in the 2012 London Summer Olympics. There was a shortage of pens when the team had filled out the forms, so a teammate had hastily filled out Solouksaran’s form. The teammate wrote: “Muslim Shia” in the space for religion. Reading over his friend’s shoulder he said, “You know I’m Bahá’í.” He let the form be turned in, but that night he was bothered by the error, and the following morning he showed up at the team’s office to correctly state his religion. After making the correction he left feeling good, but he had no idea that his career and his life were going to change. After reviewing his paperwork the Iranian committee made a call to the president of the Cycling Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and then delivered the news to Solouksaran that he was no longer a part of the National team. Scott Hembree, former pro cyclist and Founder/Director of Thrive Youth Cycling in Arizona and friend of Solouksaran says “In the world of professional sports one good event or one bad event can get you noticed or get you sidelined. Solouksaran was banking on the Asian Championships with the Iranian National Team and then he would have been set.”

At 5’3, Solouksaran has a slight build, a calm yet intense presence and his words when he speaks are well chosen and thoughtful. It is his passion for cycling that animates his gestures and expressions when he talks about the experience of riding his mountain bike, and his smile cannot contain his happiness “Mountain biking is my passion, it always has been.”  Growing up in Tehran next door to the Azadi Sport Complex, he watched professional cyclists train. By the time he was 9 he was focused on training and developing his own skills and built a pump track in his backyard, “I didn’t even know what I was building, I only knew that I wanted to ride.” he says.

Despite warnings from his Father, Solouksaran never believed that his faith would prevent him from racing for the Iranian team, he thought his ability and race results would guarantee him his rightful place on the team. “I wanted to race for my country, not for any kind of religion,” says Solouksaran. “It didn’t read ‘Islam’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Bahá’í’ on my jersey. It said ‘Iran.’?” When he was dropped from the team, he traveled to Turkey to finish the 2011 season. He wore his Iranian jersey when he raced and posted pictures of himself on Facebook. When Solouksaran returned home at the end of the racing season he had a life-changing conversation with the local team manager. The team manager told him that the National Sport Authority wanted to know how Solouksaran was racing in Turkey, and who was supporting him? The local team member was afraid of what would happen to if they continued to support Solouksaran. The message the team manager conveyed was clear: Leave Iran or end his career, delete the photos and close his Facebook account. He chose to leave.

A team in Turkey had expressed interest in him, so he packed up, said goodbye to his family and moved. Once in Turkey the team manager didn’t return his calls and he raced without any type of support, relying on his own skills to keep himself and his bike in top racing condition. Being on his own in a foreign country he realized he had to survive; he took a job with a mountain bike tourism company that offered him a dorm room and paid for his meals as being a refugee they couldn’t pay him a salary. Then the Turkish Olympic Committee got involved when it was discovered that the international race points he was earning from the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) in Turkey were still being credited to Iran, and then he wasn’t allowed to race in Turkey.

Feeling frustrated he began looking for a way to ride and race, and recalled his conversations with American riders who all said that one of the best places to ride in the United States was Colorado, so he applied for asylum through the United Nations. The process took 23 months, and by then, all of the international racing points he’d accumulated while riding in Iran and Turkey had expired. After nearly 2 years off the race scene, he arrived in the US without current international race results or points. Being an unknown meant he had no connections to sponsors, he didn’t have a green card, so he couldn’t fly to races outside the United States; and he had no community of riders or teammates.

Once Solouksaran was able to race again, he quickly started rebuilding his career. He balanced training and a job at REI. He’d wake up early and train between 2-3 hours, then get ready for his 8 hour shift and on weekends he went to races. Not having a US ranking meant that he started races in the back of the pack and had to power around slower riders. Positioning has as much to do with power and skills in a 20 mile or longer bike race. Solouksaran who had been known for his explosive power and graceful riding over technical terrain was wasting valuable time and energy passing riders and jockeying for position. But his results started speaking for themselves, he had found a community of riders and friends and then he moved to Utah.

Rebuilding his life after being sick and injured has made for many tough and scary moments. Being a refugee, Solouksaran has already lost his home and his family, he has lived with uncertainty and insecurity for nearly 8 years. He’s working 2 jobs now to build security and stability for his future. The tough experiences have taught him to be tough. Alone here in Utah Solouksaran’s face is wise as he talks about trying to maintain his life; working full-time, figuring out how to train to race, go to races and pay for it all without going broke and ending up in debt. “At home, in Iran our culture is all about community; family, and friends, we are always together. It has been hard to not have that support and connection. Right now it’s a catch-22. I work all the time, and ride when I can and there isn’t much time to get out and meet people.”

When he’s training to race, he has even less time. Solouksaran can’t take time off from work for training, so in addition to working 40-60 hours a week, he has to train at a minimum of 20 hours a week and then there’s things like sleep, recovery and taking care of your life that take up the rest of the time and energy he has. At races Solouksaran says with a smile, “I’m really a team of 1. I do it all for myself: prep my bike, get my bib. After the race I try to meet everyone and talk to people, so I might not eat right away. Then I have to drive home and sleep and then I typically work the next day.” This type of pressure says Hembree is not sustainable for a professional, as recovery is an important part of training. Hembree has seen Solouksaran win cyclo-cross races on his mountain bike and thinks he’s an incredible athlete. Hembree would like to see Solouksaran get sponsorships that would support him so he could race full-time for 2 to 3 years, so he can make his way back into the sport.

Solouksaran is hopeful for the future, he’s come too far and endured too much to give up now. He’s planning on training this winter and racing Spring 2019.

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