Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, was taking a walk few residents of Colorado Springs, or the United States, ever will take.
On Feb. 21, 2013, he was walking in Tehran, Iran.
Yes, Tehran, Iran.
A few moments after the 2013 World Wrestling Cup, Bender and several U.S. wrestlers were walking to the bus. Iran is a world center for wrestling, and Iranians adore wrestlers, even if they compete for the United States.
"I remember the security detail," Bender said Monday. "That security detail could part the Red Sea, so to speak. We were cutting through a mass of people wanting to see Jordan Burroughs and see our team. And then I heard a man shout in broken English, 'Jordan Burroughs, I love you!'"
Burroughs, of course, is one of the greatest wrestlers in America's rich history. On that day, Burroughs had defeated an Iranian wrestler. Didn't matter. The love was still being proclaimed in Iran for an American wrestler.
Bender is determined to take the U.S. team back to Iran for the Feb. 16-17 Freestyle World Cup. Donald Trump might have delivered a roadblock when he signed an executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Iran.
But Bender is undaunted. He plans to walk the streets of Iran in February alongside his American wrestling brethren.
"We read the paper, too," Bender said. "We see what's being said, and certainly we're very interested to see how this may complicate an already complicated process, but we're optimistic that once again wrestling will be able to transcend politics."
His hope is not a given. Iran has banned American citizens from visiting the country, but visas, and an exception to the ban, still could be given to wrestlers.On Monday, Iran reportedly launched a missile, possibly in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution.“We’re aware that Iran fired that missile,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday afternoon.It is, no doubt, a dark time in our world.
Sport is like any other realm. There are pockets that leave you with a serious case of the blues. Deflated footballs. Doping. Cheating. Fan-on-fan violence. Concussions. The list goes on and on.
But sport, at times, can blast through the darkness of our world. I've made five trips to the Olympics, and been uplifted each time to see how our Games can conquer our differences.
I'm hoping, along with Bender, for the American wrestling team to battle through all diplomatic and political obstacles. I'm hoping American wrestlers will tangle with Iranian wrestlers before wild, loud, jubilant crowds.
At the Olympics, I've been surprised to find myself in friendly conversations with Iranians about wrestling and LeBron James and the Rocky Mountains. I don't bring up The Iranian Revolution, and they don't bring up Jimmy Carter, and we get along great.
Coleman Scott, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, was on the trip to Iran in 2013. He's toured the country three times as a wrestler.
"I loved it every time I went," Scott said from his office in Chapel Hill, where he coaches North Carolina's wrestling team. "They love wrestling. They understand. It's not like they - the normal folks over there - have it out for us."
Scott laughed as he thought back to the scene at Iran's Azadi Sports Complex in 2013. The Iranians don't have, or at least don't enforce, fire codes, meaning the venue was absolutely jammed with fans armed with horns and drums.
"There was even a band leader in there," Scott said. "It's nonstop noise for a couple hours."
The reception for American wrestlers was hostile, but not much different from the reception at Mile High for an invasion by Tom Brady and the Patriots. Each time he wrestled in Iran, Scott could tell he was surrounded by fans who understood wrestling and appreciated anyone, Americans included, who were masters of this primal yet complicated sport.
"Good people," Scott said of the Iranians. "They're good people. If our governments aren't getting along, we still can get along. It's the coolest thing."
Scott is done competing and doesn't know when he will return to Iran.
Bender is uncertain, too, but he has a plan. He's not dismissing the real and troubling differences that divide the United States from Iran, but he remains a believer in the ability of sport to slice through those differences. He hopes to watch sport once again transcend politics in February.
"The betterment of mankind through sport is real," Bender said. "I believe it, and I've drank the entire pitcher of Kool-Aid on that. We share a lot more than they differ."
Amen to that, Rich.