When Shirin Gerami lined up at the start line of the 2013 ITU World Championships to represent her home country of Iran, it was the culmination of six months of intense work behind the scenes to persuade the Iran Triathlon Federation to grant her permission to represent them. Six months of meetings, red tape, custom kit designs (as the strict Islamic dress code was the major factor in their decision), factory visits and trips to Iran, to enable Shirin to become the first female triathlete to represent Iran.
Although she made history that day once she had received the go-ahead to represent Iran, the work didn’t end there. Shirin, whose journey in triathlon began whilst at university in Durham, has continued to blaze a trail and demonstrate that a modest dress code is not a barrier to sports participation. In 2016, Shirin toed the line at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, completing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run wearing a hijab and head-to-toe kit.
In this Q&A we chat about her experiences in triathlon and the behind-the-scenes work that led to her becoming the first woman to represent Iran in triathlon.
In 2013 you became the first woman to represent Iran in triathlon, however, just getting permission from Iran was a colossal undertaking. Can you explain what you went through in order to compete at the 2013 ITU world champs in London?
There were many firsts leading to that race. The first time a female would compete in a triathlon officially representing Iran on a World Champ platform, and the first time the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was to officially accept a female athlete representing Iran. The first time both entities had to look into their dress code rule book and reassess what they would or would not allow this girl to wear in a race.
From the Iranian government’s perspective, one has to cover; from the ITU perspective, one is prohibited from covering anything beyond the shoulders and knees (it has since been updated to elbows). The first time, I had to source clothes that would cover me head to toe. It was the first time I had found myself in this position, unexpectedly, on the phone to both ends, trying to find a solution that respected both perspectives. Like all firsts, clueless but full of hope, seemingly impossible and yet, is there such a thing as impossible?
Then there were the age-old complications: the Iranian federation wanting to be present at the ITU World Champs. Partly because they had a female representative racing for the first time and they wanted to be present, partly because it is when the ITU and all the national federations meet up to discuss the following year’s plans and next steps. But the UK government denied the Iranian party entry to the country – which complicated matters to a whole new level.
What did I go through? Heartache. When you yearn for a dream so strongly that your heartaches beyond description. The dream that no matter who you are or where you’re from, what your background is, whatever your nationality or your choice of clothes, regardless of all the -isms and ideologies that we are caged into, we all still have equal rights to the blessing in life that is to swim, bike, run and compete alongside our friends. It was a very personal quest: I wanted to be able to look myself in the eye and believe that when there is will, love and respect, there is a way.
After this milestone, did you hear from women who felt inspired by your achievement?
Yes – so many, to this day. And every time I hear from someone it makes my heart ache again and frankly I want to hide away because of my incompetence.
The one and only reason I decided to represent Iran in the 2013 ITU world champ – and the ensuing races – was in the hope and dream of making triathlons accessible to more women. And by triathlons I mean, swim, bike, run and generally all the positive benefits that come with sports and the outdoors. And I can only hang my head in shame when I still look around me and witness how, after so many years, I lived a life of dreams but hardly made a dent in reality.
In 2016, you represented Iran again at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, the pinnacle of IRONMAN triathlon. How did you feel lining up on the start line?
Kona was another first in many aspects. Another first permission, another first challenge, and once again so much cluelessness, just clinging on to hope. Would I physically be able to do an Ironman, something I had never done before? Not to mention that I was rejected entry to the US for the race as an Iranian, and then the Iranian authorities were hesitant to grant me permission, and then there was the quest to find appropriate covered clothes which made me circumnavigate the globe a couple of times before Chris MacDonalds, an Ironman athlete, helped me out. And even if I was able to do an Ironman, would I be able to do it fully covered head to toe in that humidity and heat?
I felt longing from the deepest pit of my heart. Longing for a world where participation in something so simple as sports, something as trivial as a triathlon, would not have to be so complex and challenging for so many; where sports accessibility should not have to be so riddled with challenges.
A few days before the event, after a few mishaps and what felt like interrogative interviews, as I was still waiting and hoping for my permission to come through, I went on a bike ride on a section of the bike course. The winds were so strong they picked me and my bike up like a weightless feather and hurtled us to the other side of the road, an inch away from the lava fields. It was then that I knew that actually, it’s not about my dreams, it’s not about what I or anyone in the long chain of Iranian, US or race officials want. Ultimately, it’s up to this ‘universe’.
When I lined up on that start line, all I felt was surrender. Surrender to the universe. If I was meant to be doing this race, may ‘the winds’ guide me through the course, and if not, may they fling me on the lava fields and disable me from continuing.
What do you remember from your Kona race experience?
What I remember most is the wind caressing my face.
When things get hard in racing or training, what mental strategies do you call upon?
To be able to swim, bike, run, train and race is such a huge privilege. To have the food, the shelter, the safety and stability to be able to do so is, again, such a huge privilege. To have the mental and physical health to do so is such a huge privilege in life. I have no reason to complain and every reason to be grateful, grateful for every breath, every stroke, every pedal and every step.
Although the act of training and racing is a pleasure, it doesn’t mean I always have the strength or drive to continue. Especially when the logistics, admin, sitting behind closed office doors, and chasing people gets too much. Or the journey too lonely. Or when my extensive collection of internal barriers work against me. It is no strategy, but when I get overwhelmed, I have to remind myself that I am in such a position of privilege. I ask myself ‘if not me, this girl who is blessed beyond measure… then who?’
There is a poem in Persian that my grandfather always recited:
تورا عمر و عزت داد ایزد
که آسایش خلق بر خود کنی فرض
وگرنه در این ملک کاری نداری
ولله الملک و السماوات و العرض
God granted you life and dignity
So that you would assume the welfare of creation
Otherwise you have no purpose in this dominion
To ‘him’ belongs all the wealth, skies and earth.
You were mentored by the incredible Ironman athlete Paula Newby-Fraser. What insights did she pass on?
Talk about blessings and privileges… Paula Newby-Fraser is most definitely one of them. We crossed paths extremely serendipitously. She opened so many doors for me, and graciously supported and mentored me in so many ways. I would have given up on triathlons long before Kona had it not been for Paula’s support. Without a shadow of a doubt, a huge part of Kona is down to Paula’s guidance. A valuable insight she shared with me, which I keep very close to my heart is, “The ‘universe’ will always show you the way if you are willing to see”. A sentence that rings in my head often. Now that I think about it, the same winds that guided me around Kona would have guided Paula around the same course a couple of decades before.
And again, going back to your previous question, I owe so much to people like Paula who have given me so much. So when the going gets tough, one of the thoughts that spurs me on is to be worthy of the time and effort they have so graciously bestowed on me.
Has the availability of full length and hijab sports apparel improved since your first race?
People acknowledge the need, some brands get on the marketing bandwagon, but nothing of real note has caught my attention.
As most of last year’s races were cancelled, did you plan any alternative challenges?
Yes! All of which got cancelled, again. Which makes me hesitant to talk about plans, because plans change a hundred times over, and does anything ever actually go to plan?
Of dreams, I currently have mine set on the Transcontinental Race. Not so much as a physical challenge (which I must say I have no idea if I can do), but more of a self-reflective journey I think I need to undertake to further understand sport accessibility and its challenges. It’s all vague – with me, it always is. But here is to the beautiful universe: May you guide me, may you give me strength, and may I one day, somehow, be able to share the blessings you have so generously bestowed on me.
What does a typical week of training look like for you right now?
I’ve never quite understood this question – why would anyone be interested in my training week? If a pro triathlete is reading this, I’m sure they have their training sorted and they are not looking at my training regime for inspiration. If an amateur athlete is reading this, is it wise to compare notes with other people? Don’t we each have different circumstances, different levels of fitness, different goals, different life commitments, differences in access to facilities?
If it’s asked just as a curious question to know how much I train, pre-Covid, I would typically train 2-3 times a day. Nowadays, it’s more like 1-2 times a day.
What are your favourite items of kit, and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I don’t really have a favourite item of kit unless my body counts. Isn’t the body the most marvellous, awe-inspiring piece of engineering, ever?! I was quite attached to my TT bike before Covid days. I was sponsored by Liv up until a couple of years ago and I rode their Avow at the time. But now that I am eyeing the TCR, I’m trying to find the appropriate bike and kit for that type of riding. Any recommendations, please send them my way : )
What are your hopes and goals for the future?
For sports and the outdoors to be accessible to all, for everyone to enjoy the thrill of the bike, the calm of the swim, the rhythm and focus of running, regardless of who they are and where they are from. Not because sports is the most important thing in life, but because it is created out of mental, social and physical wellbeing, because the ability to train, race and safely be outdoors speaks a thousand words of peace and health. Because it brings with it empowerment, humility, and respite, even if momentarily, from difficult times.
Is that too much to ask? Is there a limit to how much we can dream?