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On Feb. 4, 2019, triathlete Jackie Faye wrote in her journal:
“I’ve recruited four Afghan She Can TriAthletes. In one month we will be in Dubai to watch the Ironman 70.3. I’m so scared this plan is going to fail, but I will push on like I have no other option. I’ve always been a dreamer—I see an Afghan woman crossing the finish line of the Ironman 70.3 World Championship—this is going to happen.”
Faye is no stranger to big dreams. As the first woman to do six Ironman triathlons on six continents in the span of one year, the veteran triathlete and coach is used to taking on challenges. But her latest idea—She Can Tri, a club to empower women through sport—was as terrifying as it was thrilling.
“We would be training in Afghanistan, one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, and one of the worst places in the world to train safely for sports,” Faye said. “But it was also a chance to empower those who are the greatest in need and hold the most potential for positive change.”
Training for a triathlon is a logistical balancing act for any athlete, but more so for the women of She Can Tri. Women in Afghanistan cannot just head outside for a run or a bike ride without enduring some form of verbal harassment or physical violence. Of the 23 public and private pools in Kabul, only two allow women; both are difficult to get to and are open at inconvenient hours.
Still, four women signed on to train with She Can Tri, hoping to make history as the first Afghan woman to finish an Ironman event. None of them knew how to swim, and not one owned a bike. Faye didn’t see this as a detriment, however; in fact, she saw herself in these women, starting from the same place she was as a beginner triathlete. This shared experience helped the team to bond as they supported each other through the process of learning how to swim, bike and run.
Because they were training in a war zone, most She Can Tri lessons and training sessions happened indoors. To gain the required skills they would need to prepare for race day, Faye arranged for the team to travel to Spain for a week-long training camp. There, the women of She Can Tri were able to ride on road bikes and swim in open water for the very first time.
During that trip to Spain, members of She Can Tri also served as global ambassadors, meeting with the mayor and counselor of sports and youth for the town of Alcala la Real to discuss the importance of sports for women’s empowerment.
“The finish line for these Afghan women is not just about proving something to themselves,” Faye said. “They are proving to their country that women can accomplish amazing things when they put their mind to it. They are showing men and women as equals on and off the playing field.”
That message was underscored on March 3, 2020, when She Can Tri participant Zeinab finished Ironman 70.3 Dubai to become the first-ever Afghan woman to finish an Ironman-branded race.
“While crossing the finishing line, I was so thrilled that I am going to cross it with Afghanistan’s flag for the first time raised in an international triathlon event by a woman. It was a proud moment for me,” Zeinab said. “This journey made me stronger. For me, endurance sports are more life lessons than mental and physical strengthening.”
“The finish line for our athletes is not just about proving something to themselves,” Faye said. “They are proving to their countries that women can accomplish amazing things when they put their mind to it, and they are changing attitudes about what role women should play in society.”