Morteza Mehrzadselakjani is instantly recognizable and not just when he’s standing. The 8-foot-1 Iranian also sits head and shoulders above his competition at the Rio Paralympics’ sitting volleyball events. His incredible reach and dominance in the sport has made him a star in his home country and, more importantly, given the 28-year-old a reason to get up each morning.
“I was alone, I was depressed, but my life has changed from playing sitting volleyball and being a Paralympian,” the player, known to many as just Mehrzad, told Iranian television this week (via the Telegraph).
Mehrzad was born with a genetic condition called acromegaly, which means the body doesn’t know when to stop producing growth hormones. But it was a nasty bicycle accident when he was a teenager that rendered Mehrzad disabled. A fracture in his pelvis caused his right leg to stop growing at the same rate of his left leg, which is now roughly six inches longer than his right. Mehrzad can walk with the aid of crutches, but usually opts for a wheelchair to get around, the Independent reports.
In the Paralympics, though, all he needs is his upper body, which is seemingly made for sitting volleyball. Similar to able-bodied indoor volleyball, teams can hit the ball three times before it must be smacked back over the net to their opponents. Players in the sitting game, however, must keep their pelvises on the ground the entire time. They can use their legs only to help themselves propel across the floor of the court.
Mehrzed is uniquely talented for the sport because of his arm reach, which extends far beyond the top of the 4-foot-high net. He can reach as high as 6-foot-4, according to the New York Times.
Despite his natural talents, Mehrzad had no idea he’d ever become the star of Iran’s No. 1 world-ranked sitting volleyball team. It was the national team’s coach who recruited him one day after seeing him on a television program about people with unusual disorders five years ago.
“We gave him reason to hope, and he wanted it, of course,” Coach Hadi Rezaei said on Saturday (via the Times) after Iran handily beat China in straight sets at the Rio Paralympics. “I will tell you a key word that he used himself. Before he became famous, when he came out of the house, everybody looked at him very strangely. And then now that he’s famous, when he comes out, everyone wants to take a picture. He became a champion.”
And Rezaei says Mehrzad, a relative newcomer to the game, is just getting started.
“He’s only 50 percent of what he could be at the moment,” Rezaei said (via the Times), predicting that in two years Mehrzad will be “the best player ever.”
Firstly, though, the team is focusing on capturing gold at the Rio Paralympics. On Friday, the team will face its fiercest competition in Brazil, which boasts 6-foot-10 superstar Anderson Ribas da Silva, a former able-bodied volleyball player who started playing the sitting game due to knee injuries. If Iran can beat Brazil in the semifinals, the team will then go on to meet either Egypt or Bosnia & Herzegovina for the gold on Sunday, the same day Mehrzad will turn 29.