She whispered it so quietly I almost missed it.
But it could be one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard…
My long-winded question ended with: “Where do you think resilience and grit come from?”
Her answer, quite simply: “Privilege”.
She continued: “No matter how you look at it, the privilege you have to be able to experience sport and to know it’s power.”
And it’s a privilege denied to millions of women around the world for a number of reasons including clothing.
Traditional athletic apparel, of course, isn’t appropriate for women who need, or want, to cover their bodies for cultural or religious reasons or who simply choose to cover for humility or even sun protection.
And so something as seemingly simple as clothing in this day and age becomes an impenetrable barrier to participation in sport for millions of women.
But Shirin Gerami is on a mission to change that.
Born and raised in Tehran, Shirin only became involved in sport when she settled in the UK at the age of 15 and triathlons at University.
Her 1st triathlon was a long course triathlon; the very challenging Ironman 70.3 UK and she admits she was so terrified she almost didn’t show up on race day.
Shirin then decided she wanted to compete at the 2013 ITU Triathlon Age Group World Championships which were being held in London. And she wanted to do so representing her homeland of Iran.
What followed was months of dogged determination because, at that time, women were not permitted to participate in triathlons in Iran and so her application was initially rejected.
Eventually, she was granted approval to race (the formal approval only arrived the night before the race) provided she raced fully covered; her head had to be covered as did her body, from her ankles up to her wrists and neck.
Of course, there was nothing commercially available so she had to have all her garments custom designed and made.
She raced, and finished, and in doing so became the first woman ever to represent Iran in triathlon.
Then in 2016 she had the opportunity to race the Hawaii Ironman; what some describe as the hardest single-day race in the world. And she did it; becoming the first person - male or female - from Iran to do so.
What’s powerful about this race is that Shirin chose to race in her full body suit.
Not because she had to; the race is privately owned and therefore her participation wasn’t subject to the rules of the Iranian Triathlon Federation. But because she wanted to prove that clothing alone should not be a barrier to women’s participation in sport.
She reminds me of that old saying: speak softly and carry a big stick.
She’s a softly spoken woman (and the audio is a little quiet in spots especially in the first few minutes) but through her actions, she’s opening a door that’s been closed to millions of women around the world.
In this interview, we discuss:
* that it took her 3 years to work up the courage to join the triathlon club at University and the fear and doubt she experienced in her first triathlon,
* her experience getting approval from the Iranian Triathlon Federal to represent her country
* her decision to race at the Hawaii Ironman in her full body suit,
* how asking yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” is the key to making forward progress, even when you’re afraid.
I was reminded of her answer (“privilege”) as I reluctantly trudged my way along a 7km uphill climb during my long run on Saturday.
She’s right; it is a privilege, a gift I will not take for granted and I thank her for reminding me of that.
Notes and resources
'I Finished the Ironman World Championship While Wearing a Hijab’ ~ Women’s Health
Shirin Gerami: Breaking Down Barriers ~ Witsup.com
Meet Shirin Gerami, Iran's first female triathlete ~ The Guardian
Iran's first female triathlete Shirin Gerami set to make history at Ironman Kona ~ Sports Illustrated