Blazing a trail: We meet Iran’s first female triathlete

Shirin Gerami has already overcome obstacles that few of us can imagine to compete in the sport she loves

Blazing a trail: We meet Iran’s first female triathlete

This morning it will be the crisp chill of the changing seasons that demands Shirin Gerami wraps a shawl around her head and shoulders. It wasn’t always thus.

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Gerami (pronounced with a hard G, although she happily softens it in western company), is the most enigmatic of interviewees, an effervescent smile and infectious giggles belying a stubborn interior. A determination to be a catalyst for change could be compromised by the humility of her responses – except actions speak far louder than words, especially when you have stood, arms aloft, national flag raised, as your country’s first-ever female triathlete. 

Gentle ice-breakers are quickly brushed over. Born in Iran, Gerami’s been living in England for 11 years via a childhood split between the United States and Middle East, a secondary education in Lancing, near Brighton, and Durham for a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, before settling in London. Her father died of cancer when she was young, her brother is an entrepreneur trying to build an iced tea empire in the USA, but it’s that remarkable 2013 World Championships in London, and the one that mirrored it in Edmonton last autumn, that she really wants to discuss.

If she’s not one for dwelling on her background, however, Shirin does at least tell us about how she first got started in triathlon. “I remember my first 2km run at school,” she says. “I’d joined a friend thinking it would be nice and smooth, but it was just pain.” 

With only vague memories of pre-school paddling with cousins in Tehran, trying out for the Lancing school swim squad at 15 proved equally challenging. “I told the coach I could barely swim and proved it by half-drowning,” she explains. “But I still wanted to join.”

Shirin Gerami in run training

First taste of tri

At Durham she stumbled across triathlon where a first club ride resulted in pushing a borrowed bike up every hill. But she stuck at it, and, to celebrate graduating, booked a spot at Ironman 70.3 UK at Wimbleball, one of the toughest half-iron distances on the circuit, with 5,600ft of ascent on the 56-mile bike course and a mean trail run to follow.

“I very nearly didn’t race, I was so scared,” Shirin explains, but the plan to quell nerves by booking into an Exmoor youth hostel and practising the bike course almost proved disastrous. “There’s a really sharp bend at the bottom of a descent, and I was telling myself: ‘You are going to go into the hedge.’ Of course, I went straight over the handlebars and hit my head on a post and lay there, sprawled on the floor. An old lady walking her dog took me to hospital. I was so annoyed with myself. The reason I came down was because I was so negative.”

There was no such drama come race day. “I did it much better than I’d ever dreamed,” she says. “That experience was invaluable for me to realise we underestimate ourselves so much, both mentally and physically. Before even trying the goal, it’s so likely we give up in fear of failure.”

Shirin’s humble recital suggests dicing dangerously with the cut-off times, but I later check the splits to find a more than commendable ninth in her age-group, in a shade over 6.5 hours.

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On moving to London to work in international relations, she joined triathlon clubs at Serpentine and then London Fields – where the possibility of representing Iran was first mooted.

Building on the success of the London Olympics, Hyde Park had been chosen by the International Triathlon Union to hold its World Series Grand Final, the climax to the season’s racing. As well as the elite, under-23, junior and paratriathlon races, the age-group world championships would also be staged and, with Britain renowned for sending a strong team, home soil meant the competition for places would be even fiercer.

“To take the edge off the Team GB competition, our club discussed other nations that members could potentially represent,” explains Shirin. “Someone turned to me and said: ‘Oh, Iranian woman, you can do it as well’.” 

It’s worth reiterating that Shirin would be breaking new ground. No woman had ever competed in triathlon for Iran, which is governed by strict Islamic law, and prior to the Beijing Games of 2008 the Iranian Olympic Committee issued a memorandum stating its objective was “not just to win medals, but to promote Islamic culture”. Conservative views might forbid women from competing under a male coach, with a male judge or in a mixed-sex environment, but Shirin’s initial enquiry was rebuffed because of her attire. 

Shirin Gerami on the finish line

“They didn’t think it’d be possible whilst adhering to the dress code,” she says. “My view was: if it’s only the clothes, surely there’s a solution?” A heartfelt letter stating her ambitions was followed by a five-month process of trying to find ways of competing whilst covered. 

Shirin needed permission from both the triathlon federation, who judge on sporting merit, and the government sports ministry, for compliance with respecting extraneous rules or regulations. A flurry of emails and detailed descriptions of the proposed apparel led to amendments, but the green light was still not forthcoming.

The sensitivity was illustrated by the cautionary tale of Iranian long-distance swimmer, Elham Asghari, who swam 20 kilometres in the Caspian Sea in eight hours in June, but whose achievement was not recognised by the sports authorities because, despite designing a special swimsuit that added six kilos, her female features were deemed visible as she emerged from the water.

“You have beliefs, and rules and conditions,” Shirin explains. “Some women might not have a problem with skin-tight clothes, others might take issue with being active in a mixed environment. Beliefs are very individual, but I needed the approval of the deputy minister, so it was a bit tricky. Even if you wear a burkini, which is big and jellyfish-like, when you come out of the water, the weight means it clings to your body.”

Political paperwork

Perhaps the problem could be addressed from a different angle and, with the ITU’s support, a small tent was proposed by the swim exit so Shirin could change into dry clothes without being seen. The plan seemed to curry favour, yet a fortnight before the Hyde Park race and with the necessary ‘political paperwork’ still not forthcoming, Shirin flew to Tehran and met both the ministry and federation face-to-face to try to force a solution.

“My clothes needed changing. They were either too short or too tight and I had to go to workshops to make them from scratch,” she explains. The ITU had written supporting her case so, I suggested, was this stonewalling perhaps a deliberate deterrent? She will not be drawn. 

“Beliefs are very individual,” she says. “I’m not in a position to say it was a barrier [to stop me racing]. They might have been genuine reasons, but I also knew that it was a few days before the race, I was still in Iran, I’d been told the clothes were fine but I needed to wait for political approval – and I still don’t know what this means.”

By Saturday, the day before the age-group event, a letter of nomination had still not materialised and Shirin was ready to quit. “Every shred of logic told me it will not happen,” she says. “I’d cancelled an interview with the BBC because I didn’t want to get involved anymore, but then I thought: ‘If I’m going to think positively, I’ve a race tomorrow, and it’s been so long since I did any training, it might be an idea to go for a run. I then realised I’d left my running shoes in Iran, so dug out a mouldy pair in the attic and went for a little jog around Hampstead Heath.”

Late that evening, sat with ITU delegates by the Serpentine lake café, she received a confirmation phone call from an unknown employee of the sports ministry and finally permission to race was emailed through. By then, it was 2am in Tehran.

The inclement weather on Sunday morning meant Shirin was one of the few competitors in the standard-distance wave grateful for the swim being halved. She would start at 7am, but first there was one further problem to overcome – the changing tent was a few metres from the water’s edge, so she would still be visible emerging from the swim. 

“At 5am I was knocking on neighbours’ doors asking for a poncho,” she reveals. “I’d never been so exhausted in my life. My first thought was what a shame it would be if, after all this, I’d overslept. It was beautiful to be there, so many supporters and huge ‘Go Iran’ shouts all over the course. After that I celebrated by sleeping.”

Shirin Gerami finishes at ITU Grand Final in Edmonton

Roll forward 12 months and the triathlon finale had moved on to Edmonton. Change too in Tehran, where the government of the more moderate Shiite cleric Hassan Rouhani was now fully installed. The new president had already taken charge when Shirin raced in London – and Tweeted: “Shirin Gerami. 1st female triathlete to have competed in world championship wearing Iran’s colours #GenderEquality” – but the personnel of the sports ministry were still in place from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime. 

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Shirin had left her job, which had been focused on making innovative charities sustainable in the Middle East, and was pursuing multisport full time.

“You don’t need to be working in international development to make a difference,” she explains. “Pursuing and sharing our passions make the most positive change. I looked at what sport had taught me about persistence and decided to make ‘this’ my main focus. I have no regrets.”

The year was spent researching materials and technologies that would help clip the transition time from an unwieldy eight minutes, but would also win approval. Before heading to Canada, another trip to Iran was required. “I really hadn’t thought the clothes would be an issue this time, and I was sad and disappointed that I got stressed. I was so stressed,” she adds. “It’s really hard to find something on the market that offers a degree of covering that some may want, whether it’s religious beliefs or self-confidence over body image.”

Shirin liaised with Cardiff-based company Thread, and with P2i, an innovative firm that provides waterproof coatings for a quick-drying effect, and having met and found a kindred spirit in four-time Ironman champion Chrissie Wellington, the two planned to develop their own clothing line for women who needed or wanted to cover. Business plans had to be put on ice as Shirin’s attention again turned to competing.

Shirin Gerami in run training

“Edmonton was different because of the 10.5-hour time difference,” she says. “Obtaining a visa had taken a long time, then I’d register and rack the bike in the day and stay awake all night to phone Iran. It was difficult. I’d hoped to be in Canada a week before racing to acclimatise, but I only arrived three days out and was heavily jet-lagged.”

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu in hearing that permission was only finally granted on race morning, and I ask again whether such painstaking effort should be required simply to represent her nation in a triathlon.

“No one forced me to do this,” is her response. “Knowing the culture in Iran and knowing lots of people who ‘cover’ in their lives, I totally love and respect their beliefs. I think no matter what you choose to wear or believe in it’s completely respectable and beautiful. And if, through my racing, women with these beliefs can also participate in sport, then this is exactly what I set out to do.”

Shirin had finished 76th out of 77 finishers in London, but improved to 52nd out of 63 and knocked five minutes off her time on a tougher course, with a full-length swim. “I spent a lot of time training,” she says. “I had improved, but I know I could have been much better. I was grateful I managed to race, but I wanted an additional dimension – I wanted to perform.”

What next for Gerami? She’s certain this triathlon adventure has further to run and has taken the brave decision to remain full time. The world championships take place in Chicago this year and Shirin wants to be involved but, given the dramas of the past two years, there’s understandable caution in her tone. “I have a lot of dreams, but need to plan how I’m going to support myself to continue training and keep improving my clothes,” she says. 

Shirin Gerami

“I’m still cycling round Regents Park, out to Box Hill in Surrey, and club training here and there, but need to find ways of putting in place proper structured support in order to compete. As an age-grouper, I think top 10 is a realistic goal. If I can put the foundations in place to develop myself physically, I wonder if I’d ever make it to elite. Bring on the challenge, I wouldn’t mind. I’d put the target as the Asian Games 2018.” 

Shirin had initially been told she could compete at last year’s event in Incheon, South Korea, before Iran pulled the entire team, but she’s not downhearted. She’s become accustomed to taking setbacks in her stride. “I think you might have gathered I can be a bit stubborn,” she laughs. “I will go up that hill. I will do a triathlon. I will race in Hyde Park!”

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(Images: Romilly Lockyer)