Dangerous is the wrong word. But it did seem like the paddlers from Iran should have a bit more–I don't know–edge.

After all, U.S.-Iranian relations are at a low ebb, which is really saying something. Recall that when Iran went to war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s, the United States backed Saddam. Now Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is allegedly arming Iraqi insurgents and trying to build a nuclear bomb. The American media has caricatured him as a dangerous and delusional dictator—a task made all too easy by his frequent dangerous and delusional pronouncements.

But dangerous is the last thing you'd call the three Iranian girls who showed up on the banks of Clear Creek in Golden, Colorado last June. After all, streaks of blond tied up in dark brown ponytails, long fingernails, and high-fives derailed by giggles are anything but dangerous.

No, Roxana Razegkyan, Shadi Kalantav, and Kimiya Vaezi were just three smiling teenagers on a rather extraordinary sports exchange. In three weeks, they would compete in whitewater slalom at the Junior Olympics in Golden, and later at the U.S. national championships in Maryland. But first, the flatwater racers and kayak polo players would have to learn to paddle whitewater.

"They're not ready for this," says Chris Wiegand, the former Olympian turned U.S. State Department sports envoy who helped organize the trip.
"It's really pushy here. They're used to a ribbon of current."

"Boils," he says. "They've never seen boils."

The exchange began with an email to Wiegand from the girls' coach, Katayoun Ashraf: Would he help her girls become slalom racers? When he broached the idea with State Department officials, Wiegand says, "they told me I was crazy." But he persevered, and the bureaucrats eventually relented, clearing the way for the athletes' five-week tour of American whitewater.

By the time they reached the nationals, the girls were beginning to look, and act, like accomplished boaters. Weigand suggested they skip the hardest gates on the challenging new Adventure Sports Center International course, but the girls ignored him and paddled them all. And when Razeghian flipped at the start of her first competition run, she rolled up and charged the rest of the course, as the American crowd roared its approval. They weren't cheering a representative of the so-called Axis of Evil; they were cheering an athlete.

Says Weigand: "This is not about government. This is about people-to-people collaboration through sport."