Over the years, it’s not uncommon to see some of the biggest names in triathlon visit the off-road circuit for a chance to mix it up. Sometimes, we are reminded it is not the biggest names in the sport that have the greatest impact in athletics and society.
A particular lady, Shirin Gerami has been gracing the world of off-road triathlon race Xterra, making heads turn and have people asking interesting questions.
Who is Shirin Gerami and who knew Iran had professional triathletes?
Shirin holds the notoriety of being Iran’s first professional female triathlete, however, she still considers herself a novice on a mountain bike and Langkawi was not kind on her first outing.
Raising female participation in XTERRA
Historically, women’s participation in road and off-road triathlons has been low. XTERRA Malaysia’s director, Sean Chee reached out to Shirin to gauge her interest in competing in her first off-road event on the resort island of Langkawi.
Ultimately, XTERRA Malaysia was successful in increasing the size of the women’s professional field, so much so they outnumbered the men for the first time.
In terms of demographics, Muslim women account for roughly 900 million potential participants in athletics. Showcasing the health and wellness benefits the sport offers and the confidence she displays as she competes alongside other professional athletes, it is easy to envision how Shirin serves as an ambassador to this community.
According to Dave Spence, XTERRA Malaysia technical director and the architect of the brutal Langkawi course stated:
“Our primary goal was to increase women’s participation and Shirin was a good match to ensure they reached a large segment of the Malaysian female population.”
Why is Shirin so important to our sport?
Caviler at heart, Shirin rarely lets a challenge or obstacle go untested. So, it makes sense to find her at XTERRA Malaysia racing arguably one of the toughest courses on the Asia Pacific circuit.
Born in Iran, Shirin immigrated at a young age with her parents to southern California briefly before settling in England. Once in London, Shirin delved into an active lifestyle that eventually led her joining a triathlon team at university.
Triathlons and athletics in general have provided Shirin a visible platform to showcase the importance of women’s participation in sports and how it leads to increasing equality across the board.
An important signal came from the Iranian government when they allowed her to represent Iran at the 2013 ITU World Championships in London. A post-race acknowledgement of her efforts and reference to women’s equality by Iran’s government leadership shocked many.
That’s quite a big deal for women in Iran let alone Shirin. In racing, we would say this is a significant tailwind.
In 2015, Shirin spoke at the TED x Kish conference in Iran. Her subject was not her experience breaking down gender barriers through the sport of triathlon, but how she suffered a lost of faith and questioned humanity for a brief period of her life. Like all obstacles placed in her life, Shirin eventually found solace in training and racing that led her to Langkawi.
According to Shirin, fellow triathlete Dimity-Lee Duke helped calmed her fears by offering, “We all race for different reasons, for different goals, and each race means something different to each athlete. None of us can compare ourselves to each other.”
Shirin reminds all of us that the fear and the struggle are very much real. Spending a few days around Shirin allowed me to understand that plenty of potential athletes are eagerly waiting to enter our sport – and sometimes it only takes one person to open that door.
Watch out for Shirin Gerami as she returns to race in Xterra Malaysia at Langkawi on May 7th.
Charlie Epperson is a USA Professional Triathlete and trail runner. Charlie captured 4th place at the 2015 Xterra Malaysia championships and finished 4th overall in the 2-15 Xterra Asian Tour Championships.