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Covered From Head To Toe, She Finished The Ironman

Shirin Gerami celebrates after finishing the 2016 Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.
Sean M. Haffey
Getty Images for Ironman
Shirin Gerami celebrates after finishing the 2016 Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.

Updated October 12, 10:20 a.m. ET. She did it! Shirin Gerami completed the Ironman World Championship in 13 hours and 11 minutes. "It was an absolutely beautiful race," she says. "I was able to do one of the toughest endurance challenges in the world while being covered."

She was at the seamstress the day before the race tinkering with pockets and flaps, and the outfits felt a little heavy during the race. But it's a good starting point.

"In the future, I want these clothes to be accessible to everyone." And, she says, she wants to improve as an athlete. How? "Faster, stronger."

Our original post continues:

Only one woman has been allowed to represent Iran in triathlons. Her name is Shirin Gerami, and this weekend the athlete faces her biggest test yet.

Shirin Gerami on her bike at the 2016 Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.
/ Tony Svensson/Ironman
Tony Svensson/Ironman
Shirin Gerami on her bike at the 2016 Ironman triathlon in Hawaii.

First, she'll swim 2.4 miles in choppy water. Then, she'll bike 112 miles. She'll top off the race with a full marathon, on a road that crosses a landscape described as "barren lava fields."

It's the Ironman World Championship on October 8 in Kona, Hawaii, and it's notorious for 40-mile-an-hour winds and 90-degree heat.

Most competitors wear some version of a leotard or a swimsuit. But Shirin Gerami will do the whole thing in a hijab. That's what the Iran Triathlon Federation has required for her to represent them.

Iranian law says all women must follow Islamic dress code by wearing "appropriate hijab." The term doesn't come with a clear definition, but it means covering the hair and neck with a veil and dressing modestly, with loose-fitting clothing that hides arms and legs.

Gerami, who is in her 20s, started doing triathlons as a hobby during her last year of college at Durham University in England. Then, one night, a friend suggested that she should represent Iran in the London triathlon.

"So I phoned them up and said I'm an Iranian, I live in London and would it be possible to represent?"

The final design for Gerami's triathlon garb, which she'll wear during the Ironman event in Hawaii.
/ Courtesy Chris McDonald
Courtesy Chris McDonald
The final design for Gerami's triathlon garb, which she'll wear during the Ironman event in Hawaii.

The Iran Triathlon Federation responded with a lot of "no's." Gerami said they told her that because of "sensitivities," they don't support women in triathlons.

"I responded saying, 'The main reason that you're telling me that women can't represent Iran in triathlons is because of clothes. So allow me to go find clothes and find a solution,'" she says.

Gerami doesn't usually wear a hijab. But she decided to make it her mission to find athletic wear that would meet Iran's standards so that more women can represent her birth country in international triathlons.

"If clothing can open a path for more women to participate in sports, then I believe it's one of the easier barriers to overcome," she says. "I am quite certain that with the right set of skills and knowledge, we can make clothes that won't hinder performance whatsoever. I don't know how long this journey is going to take me, but I really want to see it through."

For her first race, which took place while she was in college in 2013, it took months to piece together something that the Iran Triathlon Federation would approve. Because they didn't have a definition of what was appropriate, Gerami would email photos of clothing options, most involving a mix of menswear and long-sleeved thermal wear, for feedback. She even traveled to Iran to meet with the country's triathlon federation to discuss what worked and what didn't.

Gerami at the finish line of the half Ironman triathlon in Staffordshire.
/ Huw Fairclough
Huw Fairclough
Gerami at the finish line of the half Ironman triathlon in Staffordshire.

She didn't get approval until the night before her race.

"And I just fell on the floor after that phone call and cried," she says. With that first race, a lot changed for Gerami.

"Women from all over the world contacted me saying we'd always dreamed of doing a triathlon but we never thought it would be possible," says Gerami.

The Iran Triathlon Federation and the Iran Sports Ministry discussed setting up a female triathlon team, she says, but eventually decided against it. Women are allowed to represent Iran in the duathlon, which involves running and biking, but Gerami is blazing the triathlon trail.

"They told me I'm allowed to continue representing, but for the moment I'll remain the sole female triathlete," she says.

Gerami is now doing triathlons full-time. And she's worked with a long list of companies to get her sportswear right — from Roka, a swimwear company in the U.S., to Merooj, a company in Iran that makes everything from soccer balls to Olympic uniforms.

The competition this weekend will be the ultimate test of her abilities and her clothing.

"The major, major, major thing for her in Hawaii is keeping cool. It's gonna be probably 93 or 94 degrees and 70 percent humidity, and she's covered from ankle to wrist to the top of her head," says Chris McDonald, a triathlete with a clothing company called BSR Apparel. He's done the Ironman in Kona five times and has been working with Gerami to design her running and biking outfits, which have to cover her hair, neck, arms and legs.

The struggle against chafing and bunching is real. That's why most triathletes will wear what Gerami says is "basically a glorified swimsuit."

For the swim, she'll wear a wetsuit and swim cap, covering herself with a robe once she emerges from the water. She'll duck into a tent, like the other athletes, to change into biking gear — essentially a body suit with a white hood attached and a half-skirt to cover her rear.

"That is absolutely going to cause drag, but it's a stipulation of being covered. So we just have to make that cover meet all the criteria and create the least amount of drag possible," says McDonald.

For the running portion, she'll add a mesh minidress on top.

Gerami sometimes trains in these clothes. Each piece is proof of a delicate balance between hiding Gerami's shape, and keeping her from overheating or slowing down. Even the choice of fabric helps. The light blue color fends off the heat, and the paisley print camouflages curves.

Until today, the outfit was missing something: the Iranian flag.

"We left that off purely because she didn't want to put on the Iranian flag unless she had approval from Iran," says McDonald.

On Wednesday, that approval came through — just three days before the race. Gerami says it was worth the wait.

"In Iran, there are signs everywhere that say that covering, or the hijab, is not a hindrance — and it's something I totally believe in. What you wear does not define who you are and what you can and can't do. It's just a piece of fabric," says Gerami.

If she can get through this, then maybe future athletes can focus on their training, instead of on what they'll wear to the starting line.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.