Shirin Gerami

College: St Chad's College
Subject: Philosophy, Politics and Economics
Class of: 2011

Location: London
Occupation: Athlete

Shirin Gerami, BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, St Chad’s College, tells Julia Atherley how starting triathlon training in Durham led to her becoming a pioneer in women’s sport and how she is now fighting to help other women follow her path.

Shirin Gerami only started triathlon in her final year at Durham. She had gone to a training session in her second year but made a swift exit after finding it too intimidating.

But in 2013, she became the first woman to compete for Iran as a triathlete when she made a triumphant debut at the world championships in London. She overcame institutional barriers to achieve her goals and now she is determined to help other women follow her lead.

Talking in busy central London, Shiz tells me about the moment in her final year when she finally pushed herself to join the university team.

“I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. I was totally and utterly intimidated.

“I borrowed my housemate’s hybrid bike to do the ride, I was lapped continuously in the run, and I was just trying to stay afloat in the slowest lane in the pool. But because all the other triathletes were so encouraging and lovely, I’d always just turn up for the love of being there.”

Shiz studied PPE at St Chad’s College before moving down to London to start a job in venture philanthropy. Once in the city she joined a triathlon club and continued to train but mainly just as a fun hobby.

It wasn’t until 2013 when the world championships came to London that she considered competing professionally.

“Amongst friends, everyone was saying ‘I’m going to represent France’ or ‘I’m going to represent New Zealand’. Someone turned around to me and said, would you represent Iran? We all laughed because we thought that wouldn’t be possible.”
Women in Iran are required to cover up by law and wearing a hijab is compulsory. Any athlete representing Iran at a sporting event would have to follow such guidelines.

Shiz told me: “We laughed, but why dismiss it without exploring it a little bit more? I did some research and found out that there was a triathlon club in Iran which I wasn’t expecting.

“Initially I was told they don’t support a women’s team. They said there is no way you can do a triathlon while respecting the dress code. To which I said well if that is the only thing that’s stopping women from participating, if clothes are the only barrier, then give me some time to find a solution.”

Shiz doesn’t wear a headscarf in her day to day life, so competing whilst covering had never been something she had to consider.

“Initially I thought it would be a very easy solution: just rock up to a store and buy some covered clothes and that’s it, but when I actually went into various stores I realised that something functional is really hard to come by.

“Ultimately, I ended up with the help of a sport’s shop in Iran creating a custom made piece of clothing which then got the approval of the authorities. That is what I did the first race in.

“But it completely opened my eyes to something which could be so trivial yet such a huge deal at the same time. For women who want or need or must cover for whatever reason, the lack of availability of covered clothing could be such a big deterrent in engaging in sports.”
Shiz seems to thrive off breaking boundaries and trying new things. When she first moved to London after university, she started riding rickshaws part time – one of only three women in the entire city in the job.

“I was just walking around central London and I was eyeing these guys on their rickshaws. I thought, wouldn’t that be a cool thing to do? Wouldn’t that be a cool story to tell in a few years’ time?

“So, I just tapped one of them on shoulder and asked them how I would go about doing it. They weren’t electric rickshaws; it was pure muscle work. It was a 700 strong community and there were only three girls doing it. It was quite a novelty.”

After the world championships, Shiz had not planned to carry on competing. She had left her job in venture philanthropy and moved into management consulting, still in the city. After the immensely positive media portrayal of her at the 2013 race, she had to choose between her stable job or competing full time.

“I was put in a position of choosing between management consulting or chasing this absolute crazy, who knows what it is, thing. But triathlon was based on action and outcome and that appealed to me. Little did I know that would be the path I would go down.”

Shiz now spends most of her time training and competing. Her next big race is in Bahrain in December at the Middle East championships.

“I decided to focus on doing triathlons and becoming such a norm in a way that people would look at me and think, oh just another girl doing triathlon. I hoped that the taboo would disappear with time.

“Then I thought I would commit for another year but after that I did the Iron Man world championships in 2016… One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was doing triathlon full time.”

Shiz is grateful that she took the plunge and joined the team at university. She still considers Durham to be where she planted her roots.

“Although I’m quite a ‘all over the place’ kind of girl, I do enjoy having that thread of connection still with Chad’s. A big part of that is down to Dr Masson and the friends I made when I was there.”

Alongside her busy training schedule, Shiz is planning to start a company to make specialised clothing for women who want to cover up whilst they train and compete. When she’s not at an intense training camp or catching up with friends, she is in meetings trying to make sport more accessible for women.

“The company’s main mission is to create high tech, high performance, state of the art clothes that would put you on the same level playing field as everyone else. Right now, if you compete and you are covered then you are at a massive disadvantage.

“I thought, why not come up with a solution that was accessible to everyone? Then the second aim is to create teams and support teams in regions that can’t access sports as readily as us.

“And finally, to support and sponsor events for women to train and compete in those different locations. When you race there is a very inspiring, motivating buzz to it. I want everyone to be able to experience that.”

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