Profile in Courage: Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston

First U.S. medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling

Born in Iran, Afsoon Roshanzamir was the only child of an Iranian wrestler, Manu Roshanzamir. Although women did not wrestle, and did not even get to see wrestling, Manu taught his daughter wrestling moves in their home and helped develop a sincere interest in the sport.

Her father spend time studying in Germany and Austria for advanced degrees, and Afsoon was there with the family. He wrestled often in European events while overseas. The family returned to Iran in 1979, and was there for five years after the Iranian Revolution. Manu and his family were able to leave Iran in 1983, and moved to the United States, ultimately landing in San Jose, Calif.

Afsoon went out for wrestling as a high school freshman at Independence High School, which was coached by David Chaid, father of NCAA champion and U.S. Open champion Dan Chaid. She survived the initial challenge of training with boys, at a time girls rarely wrestled, and was part of the team during all four years of high school.

In 1989, Coach Chaid brought Afsoon to a U.S. trials tournament run by Lee Allen, a pioneer in women’s wrestling. Afsoon had completed her junior year in high school, and would wrestle there against adult women. The winners would earn a spot on the U.S. team which would compete in the 1989 World Championships, the first time the USA would field a women’s freestyle team. Afsoon ended up making that USA team at 47 kg/103.5 lbs.

She was on a five-athlete team from the United States, which was coached by two talented coaches, Rusty Davidson of New Mexico and Pavel Katsen of New York, who had been the 1988 Olympic Greco-Roman coach. It was held in Martigny, Switzerland, alongside the men’s Freestyle and Greco-Roman World Championships

Afsoon had two matches in the tournament, losing to eventual runner-up Tomoku Natsumeda of Japan, 4-2, then defeating Sandra Schumaker of Switzerland by injury default. This earned her the World bronze medal at her weight class, and as the lightest of the U.S. wrestlers in the medal rounds, she became the first U.S. medalist at a Women’s World Championships. Two of her teammates secured silver medals, Asia DeWeese at 50 kg/110 lbs. and Leia Kawaii at 70 kg/154 lbs.

It was the start of a long and successful career for Roshanzamir. She continued wrestling in college, a member of the varsity men’s team at UC-Davis. When USA Wrestling began providing national team support for its women wrestlers, Afsoon could not be on the team roster anymore, but still trained with the men on the UC-Davis campus. She also was active as a wrestling official in the local community, and ended up officiating a college men’s match when the referee for a UC-Davis dual did not show up for the match.

Roshanzamir added a World silver medal in 1990, which gave her two career medals, and continued competing on the national level for a decade. She ended up making four U.S. World Teams, won three U.S. Open national titles and brought home international medals from events in France, Russia and Canada. She trained for a number of years in the Phoenix area as a member of the Sunkist Kids program.

She retired from competition in 2000, two years before the IOC voted to add women’s wrestling to the Olympic Games. She was married to Byron Johnston in 1998, and had her first son in 2001. Afsoon Johnston served the sport for a while longer on some USA Wrestling committees and was on its Board of Directors through 2003. Then, her major focus turned to her growing family and her professional career as a physical therapist.

In the last few years, Afsoon Johnston has returned to active involvement with the women’s freestyle program, going on tours both as a coach and in a medical capacity. Her children had reached an age where she could devote time towards wrestling once again. In 2014, Johnston was one of the U.S. Women’s World Team coaches, who helped lead the USA to a third place finish in Tashkent, led by three individual medalist. Afsoon is in the women’s coaching pool, and looks forward to being involved with more U.S. teams in the future.

Gary Abbott, Director of Media and Communications USA Wrestling