In the world of full-contact sanda fighting, Iranian sisters Elaheh and Shahrbano Mansourian are elite champions, the best of the best. Between them they’ve won dozens of international medals—and they are also inspiring role models to a new generation of Iranian girls with Olympic fighting dreams.

Their sport has lifted them out of poverty and given them professional status and financial freedom. They are highly recognized and respected in Iran as pioneering athletes who bring gold and glory to the nation.

Iranian Wushu Sanda Fighting Sisters

iranian panda fighting gold medal wushu
Sharhbano (third from right) and Elaheh (far right) with Iranian Sanda teammates.
Picture Credit: Iran Wushu Federation

Growing up in a poor family with six children, Elaheh and Shahrbano’s discovery of sanda fighting took them on an odyssey to become world champions—but not without bloody faces, broken bones and training under some of China’s toughest female fight coaches.

Wushu’s full-contact sanda competitions have seen a spectacular rise in some superhero women fighters over the past dozen years. Two teams especially—China and Iran—have dominated the world stage and shown that technically, women are every bit as exciting to watch fight as men. (Vietnam, Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong and India are right on their heels.)

Iranian Sanda Fighting Sisters Won Wushu Gold Medal

iranian panda fighting gold medal wushu
Elaheh Mansourian celebrates sanda victory.
Picture Credit: Iran Wushu Federation

The female sanda athletes of Iran have been critical in this global achievement. The Iran Wushu Federation was one of the first to recognize the value of training top-level women sanda fighters. For one, there’s the gender parity wushu needs as an aspiring Olympic sport. Second, it’s hasn’t hurt Iran to win more gold medals at prestigious international sporting events!

This in turn has helped shine a spotlight on wushu in Iran and helped the sport to grow in popularity and government support there. For Elaheh and Sharhbano, becoming sanda champions was a way to escape from the grinding poverty they were born into and also help their family find a home and security.

Their father was a farmer. They were so poor that the family didn’t own their own farm but were tenants in an already poor area. They could never get ahead or have a home to call their own. Looking for a way out, the Mansourian sisters searched for a sport that could help give them all a better life. Sharhbano, 31, the eldest, was interested in karate, but soon turned her attention to wushu’s full-contact sanda in 2004.

She says, “I always liked fighting since I was a kid, but I saw that sanda was a suitable way to channel my energies.”

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Sanda Fighting Sisters Elaheh and Shahrbano

iranian sanda fighting gold medal wushu
Picture Credit: Dr. W.S. Chen

Her little sister Elaheh was six years younger. She was also intrigued by sanda, and she wanted to join too. What stood in their way was money. There was only enough to scrape together for the eldest daughter to go to wushu school. But when Shahrbano came back from each class, she taught all the sanda techniques she learned to Elaheh.

Whether it was growing up with a tough childhood, their innate natural talents, or their iron-willed discipline to train for long hours that eventually brought them into the spotlight, the pair of sisters was quickly noticed by the Iran Wushu Federation. They soon had their chance to fight for their dreams on the world stage.

Shahrbano was the first wushu graduate in the family, but Elaheh was a prodigy. She qualified for the national youth team and won her first wushu medal—a silver—in Korea’s Asian Youth Championships in 2007 when she was 16. Two years later she was fighting at the World Wushu Championships in Canada and won another silver medal. She vowed the next would be gold—and she was right.

In 2010, she won a gold medal at the Sanda World Cup in China. But the following World Championships in Turkey brought a disappointing bronze, and Elaheh doubled down to train harder. Flash forward two years to Malaysia and the 12th World Wushu Championships. Little did she know what a game-changer it would be.

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