It gave me great pleasure to escape the grind and smog of the city, enjoy natural beauty, and fill my lungs with fresh air.
Shirin Gerami is the first woman to represent Iran in the triathlon.
It was October 8, 2016, and I had been swimming, biking, and running for over 13 hours while competing in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. At the beginning of the marathon leg of the 140.6-mile race, an Iranian woman living in Kona spotted me. Though we had never met before, she went home to change into running shoes so she could support me in those final miles. As I closed in on the finish, this woman started crying with full emotion, saying I was making her so proud.
I was so touched by her kindness, and everyone else’s who had supported me that long day. So as I entered the finisher’s chute, I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face. I heard the uproar of the crowd and my legs took on a mind of their own. Someone handed me the Iranian flag, and as I made my way down that magic red carpet, I opened it to fly freely behind me. And then, 13 hours, 11 minutes, and seven seconds after I started swimming in the Kailua Bay earlier that day, I heard Mike Reilly bellow to an Iranian woman for the very first time, “Shirin Gerami, YOU are an Ironman.”
But that wasn’t the beginning of my journey.
Growing up, my family and I moved around a lot. I was born in Iran, but I’ve also lived in the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Eventually, I moved to the United Kingdom in my teens—and I’ve lived there ever since.
When I was 12, my mum’s cousin took me hiking in the Alborz mountain range, which lies to the north of Tehran. She had been hiking those mountains for years, and seemed to know everyone. It was there, amongst the friendly hiking community, that I realized how much I enjoyed being outdoors. It gave me great pleasure to escape the grind and smog of the city, enjoy natural beauty, and fill my lungs with fresh air.
That interest eventually led me to exploring sports. When I was in school in the U.K., I started dipping my toes into various athletics—netball, swimming, hockey, running, rowing—whatever I came across, I tried it. I loved the challenge and energy that came along with sports, and I loved being outside. But it wasn’t until my final year at Durham University that I came across triathlons. I stumbled upon it out of sheer curiosity—I had no idea that it would later impact and change my life so significantly.
The first triathlon race I entered was the Ironman U.K. 70.3 in 2011. I'd made new friends in a triathlon club who were signing up for their first half Ironman, so I joined them. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how tough and long the race was going to be, and I was so terrified that I almost didn’t show up. But I did, and to my complete surprise, I finished well before the cut-off times. That’s when I realized how often we underestimate our capabilities, giving up before really allowing ourselves the chance to try—and I promised myself right then and there that I would try not to make that mistake again.
I don’t dress in hijab in my day-to-day life in London. But in 2013, when I entered the PruHealth World Triathlon in London, I decided that I wanted to represent Iran. No woman had ever represented Iran in a triathlon before, and I wanted to prove that you could find solutions for sensitive issues that, until then, prohibited women from participating in the sport.
There was one problem: According to Iranian law, women need to follow Islamic dress code by wearing “appropriate hijab,” which means covering your hair and all skin apart from the face and hands. That doesn’t exactly coincide with the sport of triathlon, where there is usually a lot of skin showing, whether it be when you’re taking off your wetsuit, wearing shorts while you bike, or exposing your arms on the run.
When I contacted the Iran Triathlon Federation, I was swiftly told that because of “sensitivities,” they don’t support women in triathlons. I told them that if the main reason women can’t represent Iran in triathlons is because of clothes, that I would go out and find a solution. I would find a way to compete in a full hijab so that I met the nation’s dress requirements. I would contact race authorities so that I could have a tent set up where I could change out of my swimming clothes and not be in the presence of men.
And that’s exactly what I did. For months, I emailed photos of clothing options back and forth— mostly involving a mix of menswear and long-sleeved thermal-wear so that I could get feedback. I even traveled to Iran to meet in person with authorities to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and finally made my clothes in a workshop in Iran because there was nothing in the market that respected the Islamic dress code without hindering performance.
Finally, I was granted permission to represent Iran the night before the race. When I got that phone call, I just fell on the floor and cried. I felt that same rush of emotion that I had after my first triathlon, but this time it was much stronger.
I was so preoccupied with gaining permission and finding workout clothes that I barely found time to train for the PruHealth World Triathlon in London—much less train in the clothes that I would race in. By the time I showed up to the start, I was exhausted.
And as for the clothes…well, I discovered during the race that some functions were not practical and needed to be improved. But I had accomplished what I set out to do, and that was worth it to me. Afterward, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, tweeted his congratulations to me! And women from all over the world contacted me to say they’d always dreamed of doing a triathlon, but they never thought it was possible.
After the race, the Iran Triathlon Federation and the Iran Sports Ministry discussed establishing a female triathlon team, but eventually decided against it. They told me that I’m allowed to continue representing Iran in triathlons, but that, for now, I would be the only female triathlete.
With that in mind, I started competing in triathlons more seriously, and eventually set my sights on competing in the Ironman World Championship in 2016. Racing in Kona is unlike anything else: Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles in the high heat, wind and humidity that’s common there, all while dressed in completely covered clothes, was the ultimate test to prove that a hijab is not a barrier to sports participation.
Luckily, I connected with ROKA, a swimwear company in the U.S., and they specially designed my wetsuit. BSR Apparel worked on my biking and running outfits. Every decision we made had a purpose—from the color that helped fend off heat to the print that covered my curves—and it was all designed to have the least amount of drag possible. For the bike I essentially wore a pale blue, paisley-printed bodysuit with a white hood and half-skirt attached, and for the run I added a mesh dress on top.
Racing each leg amongst all these amazing athletes was a reminder of everything that triathlons have taught me to date. Lessons of not giving up, staying positive and working hard toward our dreams. As I ticked off the miles, I thought about how we live in such a diverse world, all different and unique, down to the fingerprint that we leave behind. And yet we are all so similar at the same time: in our humanity and desire to be happy, to love and care for people we love, and to pursue our dreams that light a fire within us. Because of that, I don’t think I can really represent “Iranian” or “Muslim” women. The only person I can represent is me.
But on a broader level, I do hope that me competing in this race—and in triathlons in general—while finding a solution for covered sportswear will provide the opportunity for more women to participate in sports without having our values and beliefs disrespected. Sports are a platform that unite us in a journey of striving to be the best we can be, and that’s what I did with this Ironman. Now, it’s just about finding what’s next.