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Iranian female athlete takes on challenges of the field and her culture

Zahra Nemati of Iran leads her country's contingent at Friday night's opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

It took years of dedication and perseverance, but Zahra Nemati — in a moment of pride for herself and her fellow countrymen and women — carried her country’s flag during Friday's opening ceremonies at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Sporting a green head covering with white blouse and pants, the Iranian archer led the male-dominated team during the parade of nations.

Nemati, who uses a wheelchair because of a car accident that left her paralyzed, was met with enthusiasm and praise.

Initially, her passion for sports was channeled through taekwondo, which she started practicing when she was 8. However, after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car crash in 2003, she was paralyzed in both legs and no longer able to practice the Korean martial art.

"When I found myself in a wheelchair, I knew that my life had changed," she told Iranwire. "I wanted to do something to prove to my mother that I was still alive and lively. I wanted her to believe that this disability was not going to stop me."

And she did just that. A few years later, Nemati, now 31, took up a new sport: archery.

Nemati has also had many other breakthroughs and accomplishments. The 31-year-old is the only Iranian woman to win an Olympic gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympics and the first Iranian athlete to be named athlete of the year by the International Olympic Committee, according to IranWire.

The choice to use a female flag bearer, which was announced in January, is a historic moment for many Iranians. Women in Iran are traditionally banned from attending many sporting events. Some Iranian women, however, continue to challenge this rule, which dates back to Iran's 1979 revolution, by protesting outside stadiums. Many Iranians thought the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 would lead to reforms, but activists say that in some ways it has made matters worse.

Nemati, who has qualified for both the 2016 Olympics and the 2016 Paralympics, has a busy month ahead. In addition to competing for Iran in the Olympics, for which she qualified after her performance during the 2015 Asian Archery Championships in Thailand, she'll also be preparing for the Paralympic Games next month.

"I will do my best to win honors in Olympic and Paralympic Games simultaneously, and I dedicate a gold medal to my family," she told the BBC in January.

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