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There is a very serious lack of any kind of opportunities, particularly athletic, in Afghanistan. There are not a lot of safe places for women and girls to play outdoor sports. Most Afghan men in society can’t culturally accept women and girls playing or participating in outdoor sports or sports with an audience. Oftentimes, men are physically or verbally harassing the few women who dared to play sports in the country. This is deeply embedded in society. Afghan men often don’t allow their wives, daughters, or sisters to play sports.
But since I love to be outdoors and stay active, I was looking for any opportunity that I could get. In late 2018, She Can Tri founder Jackie Faye started to recruit the first Afghan women’s triathlon team. At first, I didn’t know what that meant. Jackie did six Ironman races on six continents in one year, and that sounded interesting. So I applied and became one of the four members. The goal was to race Ironman 70.3 Dubai in 2020.
I could not really make myself understand triathlon until our trip to watch the Ironman 70.3 Dubai in 2019. That was where I watched my first real triathlon race. I remember when people were jumping into the water, I was very terrified and I was telling myself, No, Zeinab. You cannot do this. How come you are putting yourself into this?
At the time, I didn’t know how to swim. There were only two pools in all of Kabul that allowed women, and only one other elsewhere in the country, in Herat. Private pools do exist, but most women in Afghanistan do not have access to them. These pools are small, crowded, and very expensive. I learned how to swim at the training camps provided by She Can Tri and by watching YouTube videos. Within one year I was proficient and also able to swim in the ocean. Something that I could never imagine.
In 2020, I did something else I could never imagine: I became Afghanistan’s first female triathlete when I completed Ironman 70.3 Dubai. Now, I’m training for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship this fall in St. George, Utah.
Last year, Jackie helped me to escape from Afghanistan during a Taliban takeover. I am now living in the United States, studying for my Master’s degree. I have a lot going on. I’m worried about my family who are all still living in Afghanistan, going to school, and training for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Balancing it all is tricky, but I recognize it’s also a privilege. After a hard bike ride or swim, I’m able to concentrate better on my studies and triathlon gives me the space to step back and tune into my body and away from my emotional stress.
Physically speaking, training as a triathlete has given me more confidence in my own skin. I’m stronger and more capable when it comes to daily life. I have more energy for my family and friends, school, and I just want to move more in general. In Afghanistan, I was never encouraged or free to participate in much physical activity. Now, as a triathlete, I realize that I have a whole life ahead of me of trying new sports because it’s a sport that gives you such a good all-round base of cardiovascular strength, and coordination for other things.
But I’ve gained so much more from triathlon. This sport has taught me a lot of lessons. It has taught me mental and physical strength. It has taught me to believe in my capabilities and not underestimate myself. It has taught me the importance of mental health. It has taught me to lean into my rights to be free and enjoy the world’s beauties and fresh air.
It has taught me that not all athletic bodies should be the same. It has taught me that with any type of body and background, we can achieve whatever we want to achieve if we put our mind into it. It has taught me how diverse but united sports can be. People from different backgrounds are attending an event to achieve their own goals but they are all doing it together. Now I can say sports are my hobby too. I enjoy a bike ride, a run, a swim session, or a hike more than going to the cinema or anything else.
More importantly, it has given me a voice. Becoming a triathlete has helped me to be more aware of myself and the society I live in. I realized there are a lot of things in the world, including triathlon, that my other Afghan sisters are deprived of because of the lack of resources and traditional barriers.
The new generation of women in Afghanistan is brave and strong. They are fighting against a terrorist group, the Taliban, with any tools they have at their disposal. They are protesting and shouting, but the Taliban are silencing them with force. The Taliban works to erase women from society with their harsh punishments and rules. Women are once again banned from access to things like education, work, traveling alone, and playing sports. These are basic human rights. These women should be heard by the world and they shouldn’t be left to fight on their own.
I am scared about my race at the Ironman World Championship this fall—not because of myself, but because I feel a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. In the race, I am not a representative of myself, but I am the representative of the women of my country who have been deprived of their basic rights and do not have the opportunity to express themselves. There are many times that I am thinking what if I am not going to be successful? What if something goes wrong? I have taken the opportunity that many women and girls in my country are deprived of. But it is my responsibility to represent them and to be their voice.
As part of her training and racing efforts, Zeinab is raising $15,000 for She Can Tri to make sure more women and girls can follow in her footsteps. Supporters may donate to her GoFundMe campaign.