RIO DE JANEIRO — Greg Walker encountered the tallest man in Iran in the dining hall of a hotel in rural China. Walking with crutches, the man, Morteza Mehrzad, ducked beneath a towering archway. Once through, he straightened his back, unfolding his 8-foot-1-inch frame.
Walker’s first thought: Wow.
His second thought: Oh, this is bad.
For at that moment, Walker, coaching the United States men’s sitting volleyball team in a tournament in China, realized that Iran had intensified the competition to find tall players leading up to the Paralympics.
A variation of the able-bodied sport, the game is played by people with various impairments who, sitting and sliding along the floor, volley over a nearly four-foot net.
Height truly matters, and after integrating two players who are 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-10, Brazil emerged as a global power. But with Mehrzad’s entrance into the competition, Walker, and the coaches of other nations, must rethink their strategy. Or find taller players.
Credit: Lianne Milton for The New York Times
“It was as if Iran saw how good a position Brazil’s put themselves in with their height,” Walker said. “Like, ‘O.K., we’re going to one-up you. We’re going to pull this guy out of the reserves.’ Great, thanks.”
It is an axiom that holds as true in sitting volleyball as it does in the N.F.L. When one team develops a successful strategy, others strive to duplicate it.
Iran has taken that charge to the extreme, cultivating Mehrzad over a five-year span to counter Anderson Ribas da Silva, Brazil’s hulking spiker and blocker extraordinaire who played traditional volleyball professionally before knee injuries prevented him from continuing.
The United States may find the challenge to catch up fraught. Eric Duda, an American player, said he asked a prosthetist who regularly works with the team to help recruitment by sharing his list of tall clients. Walker has joked with his wife, a clinical medical researcher, about scouring a database for the same.
Or, the United States could rely somewhat on happenstance, as Iran did.
The coach, Hadi Rezaei, said he was not actively searching for a player who, when sitting, could look clear over the net. But then one day five years ago he turned on the television.