Last week, I checked in with Jackie Faye, founder of She Can Tri. Earlier this year, I wrote a profile on the organization, which trained women in Afghanistan for their first triathlon—a mighty feat, given that many women in Afghanistan couldn’t simply head out for a run or a bike ride without enduring some form of verbal harassment or physical violence. With the current unrest in the country now, as the Taliban seized control of the capital, I wanted to see how she, and the four Afghan women she mentored through She Can Tri, were holding up. It turned out that Faye, an American, had helped Zeinab, the first Afghan woman to finish an Ironman-branded event, escape the country as the Taliban took power. It’s a harrowing tale, one that I never imagined I’d report on as someone who writes mostly about this hobby of ours: triathlon.
“Jackie,” I wrote in an email, “Did you ever expect you’d play a part in something like this?”
“Not in a million years,” she replied.
That phrase has embedded itself into my brain. Most of the time, we think of triathlon as something we do, an activity for fun, health, enjoyment, or to push ourselves. We swim, bike, and run. We climb mountains on bikes and cover distances on foot that most people would never think to traverse without a car. We drink the protein shakes and wear the supershoes. We finish the race and collect the finisher medal, which may someday end up in a drawer somewhere, forgotten. And somewhere along the way, many of us have forgotten that triathlon—what we do—fundamentally changed who we are.
Women in Afghanistan are not always encouraged to be brave, but Zeinab most definitely is. It’s a mental muscle she built over hours of training with Faye and She Can Tri. Faye never expected that she’d one day help save someone’s life, much less the life of someone on the other side of the world, but she has a deep and abiding love for her friend—the kind of unique bond that forms between training buddies during long bike rides and hard trail runs.
There are many stories about the transformative power of our sport: veterans who reinvent themselves after unspeakable tragedies to represent their country in a new way; advocates who use triathlon as a way to smash stereotypes; addicts who find a new high in swim-bike-run; high schoolers who discover that students who are different from them aren’t so different after all; people who lose weight and gain a new lease on life. Triathlon introduces us to people we may never otherwise meet, and strengthens the relationships we already have. It inspires romance, friendships, career changes, and a community that genuinely wants you to be the best version of yourself.
Through triathlon, the things we thought would never happen—whether overcoming a fear of open-water swimming, riding a bike 100 miles, or crossing the finish line of a triathlon—actually happen. If you had told me 15 years ago that I’d one day become digital editor of Triathlete magazine, I would have put out my cigarette and laughed at you. Yet here I am, in my second week at my new job, talking with my fellow triathletes about the things we never thought would happen, not in a million years.
I’m glad for this reminder, frankly. Every time I groan about Kona getting postponed (again) or feel the urge to complain that it’s too hot outside for a ride, I look back at 15-years-ago-me—a deaf, alcoholic, overweight, pack-a-day smoker—and wonder if she ever thought such lamentations would come out of her mouth.
Triathlon changed me. It changed you, too. If you’ve forgotten that, I hope you take some time to reflect on how the act of swim-bike-run has shaped who you are today, and to have gratitude for the many gifts this sport can bring. Chances are you’ll be like I am right now: gobsmacked that this hobby of ours turned out to be something so much more. Who could have guessed sweating in spandex could be such a transformative experience?
Not me. Never. Not in a million years.