Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi: badminton without boundaries

Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi has worked to make her sport more inclusive for athletes with a disability. Starting with badminton in Sweden, Paniz hopes to open the doors to inclusion for other sports and organisations across the world.

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

My name is Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi and my sport is badminton. I am a badminton coach from Sweden, and the founder of “Parallel Play” and “Better Future with Fyrisfjädern (a badminton club in Uppsala).” I am a passionate entrepreneur trying to make a change in the world by sharing my vision for inclusion through sport on different types of platforms, from events such as the Global Social Business Summit 2019, the Paris Global Sports Week 2020 and the European Commission's three-day forum on the rights of a child to my organisation’s own social media channels. I am the European regional leader of the Yunus Sports Hub “COVID-19 Sports Response” established by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus.  And I am an IOC Young Leader. My vision for inclusion through sport is what drives me and what made me change my studies from Master of Science in Pharmacy to Engineering Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Describe your IOC Young Leaders project.

Parallel Play is a Swedish national para-badminton project, which started in August 2019 to support the social inclusion of people with a disability in our society by enabling them to enjoy the accessible sport of badminton. Parallel Play's goal is to make badminton accessible to all by creating training groups for people with intellectual and physical impairments within existing badminton clubs all over Sweden. The inclusive training allows players of all ability levels to develop and achieve their full potential, whilst having fun. Overall, the project works to achieve these Sustainable Development Goals: good health and well-being, gender equality, peace, justice and strong institutions.

Despite the project being launched in 2020, which was a tough year, it has managed to create a significant impact in Sweden. Since its conception, Parallel Play has reached 630 people with a disability through different activities and started special and para-badminton in six different badminton clubs across Sweden. We have worked closely with Badminton Sweden and the Swedish Parasport Federation, allowing us to add badminton as a sport at the “Start Your Impossible” camps, designed to introduce people with a disability to different sports.

IOC Young Leaders - Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi

What did you learn through the Parallel Play project?

Parallel Play has taught us that you can have one strong, passionate person with a vision, but you need more than one person to succeed in making the change. We never thought we would be able to reach so many people in one year. But, through the reception from the community, we recognised that there is a high demand for greater inclusion in sport, especially in badminton.  This first year has shown us that instead of waiting for the target group to find us, we need to go to them with our ideas. We also learned the value of having an international network, i.e. the IOC Young Leaders community, particularly in challenging times when everyone needs others to consult with, share their issues and exchange solutions and success stories.

What do you see as the next steps for Parallel Play and parasports?

The future for Parallel Play is bright. In fact, Parallel Play was chosen as a finalist at the Swedish National Sports Award Gala 2021 in the “Change Maker of the Year” category, giving us the opportunity and national platform to show the entire country what inclusion can look like.

We are responding to the surge in interest and demand with plans to open para- and special badminton training centres in five more locations. We plan to run six more camps and take part in three competitions in Sweden.

Parallel Play has also encouraged more sports clubs to design and offer para-activities, which we hope to follow up on in the future. And we hope we will be able to influence the inclusion of Sweden's National Badminton Team in the Paralympic Games.

IOC Young Leaders - Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi

What makes you proud of your project?

I am proud of how far I have come with this project in one year, but I am most proud of the platform we created, which gives participants an opportunity to represent themselves as active players and share their own experiences in the game. When players comment that their perspective on life has changed because of badminton, it fills my heart with love.

Parallel Play has created not only dreams, but also attainable goals. We have provided opportunities for para-badminton players to improve their abilities. In one year during the pandemic, we went from a team of one para-badminton player to a team of 30 active para-badminton players.

What does the IOC Young Leaders Programme and the support of the TOP Partner Panasonic mean to you?

The IOC Young Leaders Programme means social pillar, friendship, network and an opportunity to gain greater support and confidence in our project ideas and delivery. The different levels of contribution from the IOC YL Programme along with the backing of Panasonic are fantastic. They believed in our projects, and that gives me hope for the future.

IOC Young Leaders - Paniz Yousefi Mojtahedi

What does gender equality mean to you and your project?

Gender equality means that everyone has the same rights and opportunities, in sport or otherwise. It also means that 50 per cent of the leaders and participants in any project should be women.

In Parallel Play we have 50 per cent women participants, which is significant, because we observed that female para-athletes can face multiple barriers due to both their gender and ability levels.

What advice would you give to other Young Leaders wanting to create change in and through sport?

One lesson I have learned in my journey as a Young Leader is that, even if you might have a disability, you still have a thousand other abilities that make you a special person. I would advise the Young Leaders to use all their qualities and abilities to make a difference. Remember that this empowers you to wake up each day, put a smile on your face and go and be a positive force in the world. Life is 10 per cent what you have been dealt and 90 per cent how you deal with it.

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