This year started as an exciting year for me in the world of triathlons. My main goal had been the Asian Games, which was taking place in August. It was the first time that my National Federation had asked me to represent them in a race -- prior to that, more often than not, I was running around offices asking authorities to permit me, as a female, to be allowed to participate in triathlons. It had been four years since I decided to represent Iran in Triathlons. Four years ago, I was told women are not permitted to participate in triathlons in Iran… and finally, to be asked to represent in such an official event meant the world to me.
I must admit that prior to that, I had decided to stop chasing crazy unattainable dreams and return to ‘normal’ life. But with the Tri Federation requesting my participation, telling me the paperwork had been submitted, and the press celebrating the fact that the authorities had officially nominated a female triathlete – I saw hope. The nomad that I have become once again packed her bike and a carryon full of lycra and traveled in search of a coach and training environment that would be willing to have me and help me become a worthy athlete. I decided to dedicate my entire year to training to the best of my ability – it was my dream to be able to race competitively, and to prove that anyone can be as strong, capable and competent as their peers. Whoever you may be, even from Iran a country not yet associated with triathlons; even a girl; even if she’s racing covered head to toe…
After circumnavigating the globe, several rejections and many failed attempts, I finally came across a ‘test’ training week in Switzerland. Given the high calibre of athletes, I wondered if they’d even consider taking me on board. But on the last day of the camp, I was pulled aside and was told they’re happy to accept me. The stars finally seemed to be aligning.
As is the way of the universe, as soon as I got to my room, an email notification popped up from Iran’s Triathlon Federation informing me that authorities above them had deemed women’s participation in triathlons inappropriate and ‘uncultural’. My nomination was thereby withdrawn from the Asian Games. I don’t want to sound too dramatic by saying how downcast and disheartened I was – but the truth is, I was. I sobbed so hard.
What was the point in staying in Switzerland alienating myself from everyone I cared for, ignoring all responsibilities, expensive fees, prioritising training over everything else… what for? I was packing up, ready to head back to ‘normal’ life, about to email the training camp to turn down their offer. I was on the phone to my mum, still in floods of tears, and she said: “You had already decided to dedicate the remaining 2.5 months to this anyhow… won’t it be a shame to give up now?” Mothers can be wise, you know.
If anything, this triathlon journey has taught me that to realise a dream, one needs to continue hoping, and hope requires positive thinking and not giving up. If I were to think positive: I had to train to the best of my ability up until the Games. If I were not to give up: there were still plenty of doors to knock nationally and internationally to ask for an opportunity to compete in the Asian Games.
Despite my numerous emails, neither the international nor national bodies saw my participation at the Asian Games as appropriate. Although it was sobering to see something that had so much significance slip away the way it did, I had to remind myself that the Games may have been my aim and devotion for the past 1.5 years but had never been my ultimate goal. It may change my approach to racing, but it will not alter the reason behind my racing. If anything, it strengthened it.
I believe that sports are therapy, I believe it empowers, I believe it can change individuals and communities for the better. I also believe it should be available to all those who wish to experience it – not just a right for a privileged few like me. It was my hope that my racing would perhaps open a door for a more diverse pool of women to have access to triathlons and reap its benefits, and the Asian Games seemed the perfect platform for it. If the ability to swim/bike/run is so complicated and challenging for someone like me, the privileged one, then what must others go through? I have decided to represent Iran and race in covered garbs by choice, and I have the choice to walk away – what do those who don’t have this choice go through?
Maybe the international and national governing bodies were not supportive because I am not yet worthy enough, maybe I have not yet tried hard enough. I sat my coach down and asked with all sincerity: “From what you’ve seen of my training in the last couple of months, is there any hope that if I dedicated my everything to training, maybe, perhaps, one day, I could become an internationally worthy athlete?” Of a calibre worthy enough for the governing bodies to consider in the future? Not ‘me’ as Shirin specifically, but ‘me’ as a girl, as a human being. As someone who wishes to have permission to swim, bike and run to their heart’s content like all others. As someone who should also be entitled to all the positive benefits of sports: physically, mentally and socially.
Of course one can never predict the future, and of course, nothing can ever be guaranteed. But my coach said: “Give me 2-3 years.” What I heard was: ‘There is still hope.’ In other words, keep positive and don’t give up. 2-3 years of learning how to become a worthy athlete, 2-3 years of keeping positive no matter what the journey throws at you, 2-3 years of believing its possible heart and soul.