Switching Gears with Shirin Gerami

Jun. 4, 2015

Shirin Gerami, Iran’s first elite female triathlete, took part in the XTERRA Asian Tour Championship race in Langkawi, Malaysia last month, finishing 12th in the women's field. She is believed to be the first Iranian to ever race XTERRA.

After the race fellow elite Charlie Epperson from Tennessee, who is studying abroad in Singapore, caught up with Gerami and wrote this profile…

Switching Gears with Shirin Gerami
By Charlie Epperson - rcharlesepperson@aol.com

As I step off the plane in Langkawi, Malaysia I’m immediately greeted by two powerful impressions. First, it is extremely hot.  This is surprising because I live in Singapore only a short flight away.  The second and more lasting memory is the sight of the lush, exotic mountains that seem to roll straight into the sea.

shiz7I’m in Malaysia to compete in the XTERRA Malaysia Championships that also serve as the final race of the XTERRA Asian Tour.  As I make my way to the baggage carousel, I cross paths with two South African elite triathletes, Carla Van Huyssteen and Theo Bilgnaut, who had just arrived after a long haul that began on the Island of Reunion off the coast of South Africa.  Excited to see my bike was already on the baggage carousel, a tug of war ensues with Van Huyssteen (all three of us the same travel case).  In the end, I lose.  It is clearly not my bike.  Ironic that the duo traveled halfway around the world and as luck would have it my bike didn’t make the direct flight from Singapore.

As we part ways, my focus turns to finding the whereabouts of my mountain bike.  After a quick assurance from the airline that my bike will be here by nightfall, I’m whisked away by our driver (courtesy of race organizers).  As we make the short drive from the airport to our resort located on a picturesque point on Langkawi’s east coast, I notice the driver has a list of all incoming racers along with their flight dates, nationality, and other equally valuable intelligence.  Although many athletes might commit to a race in advance, it’s a list such as this that can be the best measure of who you’ll actually see on the starting line come race day.  As I skim the names, it’s the usual suspects except for one athlete, Shirin Gerami.  It’s not that the name is that out of place among the list, it is the nationality- Iran.

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.  In 2012, Spain’s Javier Gomez, all-around triathlon wizard, made quick work of the field in the swim on his way to cruising to victory at the XTERRA World Championships held in Maui.   Then there is Flora Duffy.  She spent a year honing her mountain bike skills before returning to the XTERRA circuit to win all but one race and claim her own World Championship title.

Sometimes, of course, we are reminded it is not the biggest names in the sport that have the greatest impact in athletics and society.

So when I heard another ITU racer was joining the field at XTERRA Malaysia, I was curious.  When I was told it is Shirin Gerami of Iran, I thought, who is this Shirin Gerami and who knew Iran had professional triathletes?

I first ran into Shirin (with a big smile on her face) shortly after she returned from her first pre-ride escapade on a rewarding yet very challenging bike course.  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 the bar by increasing female participation- XTERRA Malaysia’s Vision

Historically, women’s participation in triathlons, and more specifically in off-road triathlons, has been low.  XTERRA Malaysia’s managing director, Sean Chee, wanted to do something about this and reached out to Shirin to gauge her interest in competing in her first off-road event on the resort island of Langkawi.   For many reasons, Shirin’s participation in Malaysia made a lot of sense- the country is predominately Muslim and women’s participation rates have traditionally been lower compared to western countries.  (It is worth noting, 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.  It is easy to envision how Shirin serves as an ambassador to this community.  Showcasing the health and wellness benefits the sport offers.  Or, it may be the confidence she displays as she competes alongside other professional athletes.  And, then there is the independence the sport has offered her to travel around the world to compete in some truly unique settings.  Each one of these elements has worked to break down some of the long-standing gender barriers.

According to Dave Spence, XTERRA Malaysia technical director and the architect of the brutal Langkwai 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.”  The latest report from USA Triathlon, the US’s triathlon governing body that publishes an annual report on participation rates in the U.S., lists women’s participation rate in triathlons at roughly 36%.  In general, participation rates for women are even lower in Asia and Middle East regions.

So 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 was absorbed 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 government of Iran 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.

Last month, 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.  Shirin decided to share a personal moment with the attendees.  The story was on one misadventure as she set out to hike with a small group of friends in Iran.

As Shirin describes it,  “We were young, naive, excited, innocent, full of adventure, clueless… on a journey of a life time.  We wanted to walk from Tehran to the Caspian Sea, through the Alborz Mountains.”  However, this trek would come to test more than just the endurance of Shirin and her companions.  Shirin spoke on how a few days into their hike they were approached by a group of men at night.  This fateful encounter for the youthful adventurers led to being bound, gagged, and ultimately abducted.  Without question a tough moment in her life to share with a crowd.  Like all obstacles placed in her life, Shirin eventually found solace in training and racing that led her to Langkawi.

Although the pre-ride in Langkawi only lasted a few kilometers before Shirin flatted, it offered her a clear understanding of the magnitude of what she had gotten into with this race.  That evening, Shirin joined a group of seasoned off-road professionals over dinner where she began chatting with Australian elite Ironman triathlete Dimity-Lee Duke and shared her concerns about racing her first XTERRA.  According to Shirin, 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 modestly shared, “You have no idea how much what she said meant to me that night.”

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.