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Original Article published in LIV
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 My nomination was thereby withdrawn from the Asian Games.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.
It was a spectacularly beautiful day – crispy cold, deep blue sky, and the sun set the yellow autumn leaves and orange berries on fire. The journalist was twenty minutes late and I was making use of the opportunity to go for a run and clear my head before she arrived.
She had sent me a list of questions the night before. As I ran, I thought about one of the questions she had asked: why did I choose to represent Iran? There are so many reasons for it – and it’s always so hard to express them in words. But this morning, one scene kept playing itself over and over again in my mind.
It was 2003 when a huge earthquake shook the centre of Iran – completely destroying Bam, one of the most ancient cities of the country, killing at least 30,000 people. It was one the most devastating earthquakes the country had witnessed. Bam, a once vibrant, historic city had turned into a complete ghost town:
the city turned into dust; and the people sitting on the rubbles, homeless, in shock, and mourning the loss of their loved ones. I joined a charity and started going to Bam in the hope of being of some use.
One of my cousins, Salar, joined us on one of these trips. One day, we were going from tent to tent, talking to the children and hearing their stories. It had been a night, just like all other nights, children sleeping in their houses with their parents and siblings. They woke up to their world falling on their heads, literally. The security they had always had, the world they had known, the people they had loved, sometimes their entire household… everything gone with the blink of an eye.
At the end of the trip, my cousin told me: ‘this is so hard to digest. These kids, they are the same age as you and me. They are just like you and me. Yesterday, they had everything: shelter, security, food, family. Yet, everything changed so suddenly overnight. A change in their lives in a way they could have never imagined.’ Salar’s comment kept replaying in my head as I was running this morning, over and over again.
On the surface, it’s hard to relate this to why I was thinking of this story as one of the reasons for why I represent Iran in triathlons. Something which I hope would eventually lead to the ability to share sports with those who currently can’t access it. It’s even harder to explain when you have a camera and microphone recording your every umm and err.
But experiences such as Bam are reminders that I have so many blessings in my life, and that I’m no different in any way or form to those who don’t have the same privileges. I just happen to be born under a lucky star. It’s a reminder that everything that I take for granted today, can change completely in the blink of an eye. It is a reminder to make the most I can from the blessings I have today, and share them now, whilst I am still under that lucky star… for who knows what tomorrow may bring. It is the very very least I can do to show my gratitude.
I am by no means equating sports with basic necessities of life such as security, love and food – but it is a powerful tool that can bring joy and peace of mind (even if momentarily) in the direst circumstances of life. It is a celebration and/or creation of the mind and body that allows us to achieve our dreams and enables us to pull through difficult circumstances. Sharing the ability to access sports is only a droplet of an entire ocean of blessings I am privileged to have.
And then, tonight, I heard news of Salar. He had slipped and fallen down the fourth story of an apartment. His face smashed up, both of his arms and his rib cages crushed, and his lung punctured. Salar, who is always up for a good adventure and full of life no matter the circumstance. Salar, my cousin, my friend, someone so close to my heart.
And again, I hear his voice repeat in my head. ‘They had everything that you and I currently have…. Yet, everything changed so suddenly overnight.’ It’s such a hard way to remind me of that lesson, Salar. The lesson that today, I can do the things I can do, but tomorrow I may not have any of the ‘privileges’. ‘Privileges’ in brackets, because, frankly, I’m probably taking most of them for granted right now, failing to see them as a privilege – until one day, I loose them. It’s so easy to forget that I am not in a special, invincible bubble. That these sudden change of circumstances can happen to anyone, including me.
To run, to swim, to cycle, to play, to dance, to fly, to laugh, to hug, to love, to give, to breathe… whilst we still can. Privileges come and go, they are here for us to make the most out of them whilst they last. To share and multiply what we have so others can also access it, whilst we can. Who knows what we’ll wake up to tomorrow.
Salar azizam, we were planning so many adventures together this year… another Bradley adventure, back country skiing this winter? Get well soon. Karet daram. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Never had I imagined I would be racing Ironman Kona. To tell you this story I need to take you back to 2013; the lead up to my first race for Iran, the ITU World Champs in London. I went seeking permission to represent Iran in triathlons, when women were not yet sanctioned to do triathlons officially. Like all adventures, this is my story the way I remember it.
Flashback to four days before the ITU World Champs. I had just missed my flight to London since the decision on my permit was still pending. I was standing in the Iranian Sport Ministry. I wanted to know I had tried everything within my means to make this happen.
Surprised to find me in the ministry again, one of the authorities said she would tell me the brutal reality to spare me the heartache later. For my own sake, I should accept that it would be impossible to get permission in time for the race.
I could see the reason and logical to what she was saying. My own reason and logic begged me to give up. I had run around ministries, federations and clothing workshops non stop. I had flown thousands of miles hoping that a door would open. I was exhausted like never before.
But the quest was no longer one for permission to compete in a race. It was something much more personal now. I was questioning the fundamental beliefs and aphorisms that nurture us. Was it true that ‘nothing is impossible’; ‘where there is a will, there is a way’; ‘the sky is the limit…’? Ultimately we must take that leap of faith and believe with all our might, despite all the intervening obstacles?
And what if I gave up now? How could I look myself in the mirror again and persuade myself to believe with all my heart, never giving up until I reached my goal? For the sake of daring to dream again in the future, for the sake of being able to face another challenge, I needed to keep believing. I had to keep trying.
I looked at the authority, totally lost for words. Eventually I spoke out. ‘For the sake of my beliefs, I need to keep trying.’ ‘I can’t tell you not to try,’ she said, ‘but there is nothing more we can do for you here.’ With that, she left me to deal with other business.
The night before the race found me in Hyde Park by the event venue, speaking to members of the ITU. It was 9pm, the permission had not yet come through, and I no longer knew why I had requested a meeting. Unbeknown to me at the time, the Iranian triathlon federation had emailed the ITU stating that under no circumstances should I be allowed to race for Iran. I sat across the table facing three members of the ITU, questioning the faith and values I had been hoping to believe in. Maybe there is a limit to dream, maybe there is an impossible. Then, my phone rang. I was told permission had been granted and I could represent Iran the following morning.
I walked through Hyde Park, digesting what had just happened. Finding myself alone in the pitch dark, I crumbled on the grass with tears of joy and relief pouring from the depth of my being. I was elated and so grateful for everything that happened along the way so far to London ITU World Champs: all the challenges, obstacles and moments of hope. Gratitude for all those moments behind ministry doors where I was told it was impossible, and to all those people who encouraged me to remain positive. For it is this combination that climaxed into that beautiful moment in the darkness of Hyde Park: a strong restoration of my faith.
This year, the journey is Ironman Kona. As opposed to London, this time I am sharing the journey with two others: IRONMAN, who believe that anything is possible and have invited me to compete; and Tri Training Harder, who embrace the philosophy believe, strive, achieve, and are helping me train.
I have no idea what the next 6 months have in store for me. The journey has barely started and I have already once been rejected a visa to the United States to participate in Kona – which is thankfully being revised. Authorities in Iran are still undecided on whether to support me on this journey or not. The quest to find the right expertise to design suitable clothes for Kona whilst respecting the rules of Iran has taken me across a few continents and has not borne fruit yet. The complications of getting to the start line aside, can my body cope with the stresses and demands of one of the most challenging sporting events in the world – in the heat, wind and humidity of Kona – whilst dressed in full body clothing?
As I take my first steps towards Kona, I can’t help but ask the same questions I had in the lead up to London – despite that empowering moment in Hyde Park. What if I took the leap of faith and believed that I will get to the start line; support, permissions and paperwork in tact; with appropriate kit that won’t hinder me in Kona; and physically and mentally prepared to take up this sporting challenge? Is there a limit to dreaming?
Blogs are easier to write in hindsight: that impossible that became possible. What makes this daunting is that I am writing about Kona before it happens: as that seemingly impossible, that I would love to make possible. Who knows what tomorrow brings, but today, I shall believe with my every being, work to the best of my ability, and continue dreaming. And remember to embrace the whole journey with gratitude as it will be the combination of the bright and dark moments that will shape me and my journey in six months time and beyond.
Its been a while since I last wrote a blog entry. Adventures and mischief have been in abundance, but I guess I was going through a restructuring process in my head to understand why I keep a blog. Approximately a year on, and thanks to a brainstorm I had with a lovely human being, I have come to conclude that the blogging should go on.
The problem with blogging is that it leaves you so totally and utterly vulnerable: it exposes one fresh and raw, exactly as we are. Strengths and weaknesses, joys and grief – the whole package exactly as it is. All to an unknown audience around the globe, all with different views and ways of life. Everyone with a definition of how one ought to be and think: some black, some white, and others grey. Some accepting, others controlling. I find this very daunting.
So why have I decided to pick up blogging again? On one hand, I decided to regard it as a personal journey to be true to who I am: my strengths and weaknesses, beliefs and way of life. Be accountable to myself about who I am today, and then strive to grow for the better along the way.
On the other hand, through blogging, I wanted to create my personal corner, away from the edits and selective stories of the media. My story and journey as I have experienced and seen it through my own unedited words. That ordinary little girl with all her imperfections: her dreams, her failures, her ups and downs. Just like all other ordinary girls: unique on a micro level of individual personalities and beliefs; yet the same on a macro level of dreams, hopes, ambitions and imperfections.
And so here starts a whirlwind of emotions and adventures: Dreams, hopes, falling, getting up, falling, getting up, falling… and at times achieving. My journey, my love affair with life, and its different shades of dark, light and neutral that paints this life so beautifully.
The topic of the TEDx Kish talk was ‘Tipping point’
What was the point that caused one to do something that was important to them?
For me, it was that night in the Alborz Mountains, the start of a journey to understand gratitude. Gratitude, love or Esq to all the people who paint my life every single day, in their beautiful yet different shades. It is sharing the power of sports and the outdoors, something that has revived me when I most needed it. It is the hope that the next travellers who pass through this hut on earth, they too could experience what has blessed me so much during my stay.
I initially wanted to portray only half the story, the easy tales to tell. But the reality is, this is why I do it. In the hope that no matter how far down our journey takes us in life, we all find a path that will help us climb back up again.
The bruises are finally disappearing, the bumps and swells are subsiding, and even the vicious mosquito bites are miraculously going away. I confess it was rather entertaining examining all the new bruises, scratches and swells every night, it was like collecting exquisite graffiti on my body. All that remains of Xterra Malaysia (and the journey to) is the mark where the chainring teeth sunk deep into my calves — and a lifetime of warm memories and unforgettable lessons.
I rocked up to Langkawi, Malaysia four days before the off-road triathlon race. I mean, how hard could it be?! I’d spent a month training on a mountain bike with Jean Pierre, had had a semi-successful attempt on a mountain bike in Iran, (admittedly mostly spent pedalling on tarmac)… And I had given myself a few days to go around the bike course to familiarise myself with it. Surely I was all set and ready for Xterra Malaysia?!
The event organisers had kindly arranged for me to borrow someone’s mountain bike for the race. My beloved Dorothy (my roadie) simply can’t deal with anything but tarmac. I collected the bike first thing in the morning and set off… I put the first kilometre and a half behind me. There were roots, rocks and streams which I cautiously walked over, and thought: it isn’t all that bad.
But then I turned around the corner… I don’t know how long I stood there gaping at what lay ahead, wondering how on earth I’d ever be able to get up that massive hill/mountain! I probably would have just stood there transfixed for an additional few minutes had Ray and Elsa (two of the event organisers) not arrived moments later to check up on the course. Encouraging me to go on, I got back on the bike huffing and puffing my way up parts of it, thighs and lungs on fire, not to mention all the wheelies I was performing due to my lack of mountain biking ability. Sometimes Ray would ride the bike, sometimes I’d walk the bike, sometimes I’d attempt to ride, but would fall over. After what seemed like an eternity I asked Ray, ‘are we even past the halfway mark yet?’ I was actually waiting for him to say, we’re more than three quarters of the way in. ‘This is the 3km mark,’ he said. ‘There’s another 27km to go…’
To my relief, Ray and Elsa finally left me on my own and I managed to ‘roll’ down to a road, coated in mud and blood. Exhausted, and out of food and water, I followed the road back to the hotel. I had covered 5km in 1 hour 45min.
With two days left to the race, I got on the phone to Paula. Paula is an angel of a lady who has by some miracle become a mentor, guide and a wonderful sounding board. ‘I don’t think this is good idea!’ I said. I know I am all the way in Langkawi, and it would be very bad if I didn’t race, but I then proceeded to list a whole lot of excuses – starting from the swim, then bike and then the run – trying to convince her and myself on why I should not take part in the race. ‘Paula, I think I should withdraw.’
As always, thanks to Paula’s ability to make me see things through a clearer lens, I actually made it to the race start. Granted, the other elites were miles ahead of me before the sound of the gun had even had the chance to disperse in the environment, but I was actually surprised at how I performed. It’s a satisfactory feeling to look back and see the progress made: I raced over obstacles that petrified me two months ago without a second thought. I completed a course that seemed beyond my imagination and capacity a year prior. Let’s face it: I managed to stay on the bike throughout most of the course, something I had been incapable of just a few days before!
After the race, Belinda, one of the pros, radiating her usual beautiful and genuine smile exclaimed: ‘you never stop smiling!’ Next to her, Dimity and Renata were radiating the same contagious smile. ’But it’s because you’re always smiling!’ I said. I was merely (and subconsciously) reflecting the heartfelt smiles and kindness everyone was showering on me. The encouragements, positivity, and the general beautiful attitude of all the amazing superheroes I was so fortunate to meet at the event was truly humbling.
I owe the fact that I ended up racing, as hard as I was trying to convince myself to withdraw, to two things. One, because I have a slightly stubborn streak. But the second, and most important reason is because of the incredible people who manifest themselves in my life. I am only that ordinary girl who manages to land herself into mischief a lot of the time. But it’s all about the untold stories of the incredible support of friends, family, and athletes who have always been my prime motivators to pursue my dreams. It’s their love, inspiration and contagious passion that constantly help me to think positive and to dream big. As two of the wonderful event organisers, Sean Chee and Dave Spence, taught me in words and by their actions: “It’s about appreciating, embracing and immersing ourselves in mother nature… it’s about living more.” I can only hope that at the very least, I could one day show my gratitude to all these wonderful people by passing on what they have bestowed on my life to others.
By now the aches and bruises are long forgotten, but the memories of Xterra will bring a smile to my face for years to come, and its lessons will remain with me for a lifetime. The lesson that I shouldn’t underestimate my mind and body. I should never give up from fear of failure before even trying. That through positive thinking and focus, the unattainable becomes attainable. That I am so fortunate to be able to look up towards such amazing human beings for inspiration. Will I do it again? Now that I’ve taken the first wobbly steps towards completing an Xterra, I would quite like to become more confident, capable and stronger. Far too ambitious, I know! But I wonder if focus, hard work, and a streak of stubbornness pays off?
“The universe will always show us the way if we are willing to see… let the opportunities come to you.”
It was around November last year. The lead up to the Edmonton World Champs and the issues I had encountered with getting permission had rightly or wrongly left me in an emotional tangle, exhausted and doubtful of my decisions. Its not that I didn’t want to continue racing, but the whole admin and logistics side, the incertitude, the not having permission until the last second, and the various challenges were getting far too overwhelmingly stressful. By the end of the race in Edmonton, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to continue, whether I should revert back to my ’normal’ life, if the ’sacrifices’ were worth it… simply put, I felt lost.
I wondered if I could possibly find someone/something that could guide me, mentor me, help me detangle the knot I could feel forming within me. And I searched… I had no idea what I was searching for, but I just prayed and kept on searching. Be it a coach, a friend, spiritual, sporting revelation, person, non-person… I was clueless what I was searching for.
During this internal confusion, I received a message from the BBC. They were starting a new radio programme called The Conversation, a format where two women from different countries and cultures talked about the work and experience which connected them. They wanted me to be on this programme with Anu Vaidyanathan, an Indian triathlete. Considering my tangled state of mind, I had avoided any public media activity for a while. But for some reason, I somehow agreed to participate in one of the episodes.
A week before the recording, the BBC sent me the finalised details of The Conversation. I was informed of the time and place and was sent a brief on the person I was to have a conversation with… but that person was Paula Newby-Fraser. To this date, I still don’t know what came of Anu Vaidyanathan.
And so I entered the BBC studios and on the other side of the world, Paula was sitting in the BBC’s recording studios in South Africa. There was something about her that I loved and connected with immediately. She spoke of her journey, her initial triathlon days in South Africa, her struggles in racing… As the conversation unravelled, it also helped untangle some of the thoughts and questions I had been battling with. From there stemmed the beginnings of a conversation between Paula and I, beyond the BBC programme. Shortly after the interview, she gave me two pieces of advice which I have come to cherish (and which she needs to remind me of every so often): “The universe will always show us the way if we are willing to see… let the opportunities come to you.”
If we are willing to see, the universe and its ways are pretty awesome. What were the chances for Paula to be replaced by Anu? That I accepted to take part in the BBC conversation, despite initially having wanted to not participate. The timing, which was when I was ready to give up on racing. Ironically, for Paula herself to tell me — when I still couldn’t pluck up enough courage to ask her if she would be willing to help and advise me — that I should let the opportunities come to me, to let the universe be my guide.
And since then, and thanks to the advice and sound words of Paula, I can only tell you that I’m back to loving life as an athlete, loving representing Iran in races, loving how the journey is developing, unfolding, and surprising me. And I can’t stop marvelling at how the universe manifests these amazing people and opportunities in front of me at times and in ways that I least expect it… if and when I am willing to see.