Ever since she won the girls state title as a senior at West High in 2015, Iman Kazem has continued to progress in women’s wrestling at Menlo College in Atherton.
On Saturday she reached the pinnacle of success, winning the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title in the 155-pound class at the NAIA Women’s National Invitational and leading the Menlo Oaks team to the first women’s wrestling national team title awarded by the NAIA.
Kazem is one of five national champions on the team, and three more Menlo women wrestled in the finals at the NAIA championships Friday and Saturday at the Harold Newman Arena in Jamestown, North Dakota.
“Our individual ones matter and are amazing, but the team ones are the ones we’re most proud of,” Kazem said.
This is the first year the NAIA has held a national women’s wrestling championship tournament, and Kazem and her teammates are the first Menlo College team to win any national championship. The NAIA title is in addition to the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association national title they won in February.
“For me, this year has changed my life,” Kazem said. “I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had.”
Kazem’s California Interscholastic Federation state title as a high school senior in 2015 was a milestone, but once she got into college wrestling, she felt like she was starting over.
“My senior year of high school, I went 30-0 against girls and won state, but I still felt something was missing, like it was a fluke or something,” Kazem said. “I really was not convinced that I was good enough for college, and Salvador Alvarado, my coach (at West) who volunteered to take me places, he believed in me and I just went with it. I believed that he knew what he was talking about, and I went into Menlo having to learn a new style of wrestling.”
She learned to trust Menlo head coach Joey Bareng and his staff and saw that they were dedicated to seeing her become a top collegiate wrestler.
“They kept talking about me buying into their vision. Once I did, it was over from there,” she said. “I was destined to be here, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the support that I have from this program.”
Becoming a team captain in her sophomore year allowed her to become the type of leader who draws strength and inspiration from her team.
“I highly, highly believe that having a team full of determined women alongside me is a big determining factor in my success,” she said. “It’s so different from my high school experience, where I’d be the only girl on the team and I’d go to tournaments by myself with one coach, and maybe my parents and my brother. They supported me.”
By the end of this season, Kazem had learned to not obsess about the stress of facing top competition and to live in the moment whenever she was on the mat. One of her biggest matches was in the semifinals at the WCWA tournament last month, when she faced Alyvia Fiske from Simon Frazier University of British Columbia. Fiske, a graduate of Vintage High in Napa, was one of Kazem’s rivals during her senior year of high school wrestling.
Kazem won on a 9-7 decision, but even after she took the lead on a late takedown, it was a hotly contested match until the end.
“The last seven seconds she tried to take me down. She got extremely deep in her shot, but I pulled her up and got her out of her grip, and I did not let her take me down,” Kazem said. “That was probably one of my favorite moments of the whole season.”
She finished second at that tournament after a loss by decision in the final round, but this past weekend she was determined only to do her best, believing she was capable of taking the advantage over any opponent.
“I just got to go out there and wrestle literally every second as it came. I had never felt so good about calming my nerves, and it’s kind of crazy that it happened at my last collegiate tournament,” she said.
She won all four of her matches, two by technical fall and two by pin, including a pin in 39 seconds over Anna Naylor of the University of Cumberlands in the final. It was the fastest pin of the tournament. Kazem also did not get scored against by any of her opponents except in the semifinal match, when she stepped off of the mat and allowed her opponent to score an escape point.
With a successful collegiate wrestling career behind her, Kazem is looking for the next path forward in her sport. She said teammates and coaches have directed her toward coaches at the Olympic Training Center, but she has yet to explore that option herself.
“I love wrestling too much to stop fully,” she said. “I don’t know all of the steps needed to get to a higher level, maybe Olympic level, world level, whatever I need to get to, but I have decided that I’m highly considering it and trying to figure out the logistics of how I’m going to train for the next Olympics. I have to focus on every single step to get there.”