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

May 8, 2021 0 By HearthstoneYarns

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.”

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.