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Five years ago, Jeri Villareal made a resolution to embrace new challenges instead of saying “no” to everything that scared her. A friend put that pledge to the test by asking if she’d do a triathlon–a challenge that scared Villareal, who considered herself unathletic. Still, Villareal was true to her word: “I said yes and joined a local triathlon club that day.”
In her first year as a triathlete, Villareal completed eight triathlon races. “When I crossed that first finish line, I felt like an athlete. I learned in that moment that my potential had only been limited by my imagination, and that anyone could be an athlete if they put in the work.”
While defying her own assumptions, Villareal also learned she was defying stereotypes just by being out on the course. Villareal, who is Muslim, races everything from sprint triathlons to half-iron events in hijab, covered with a headscarf with only her hands and face visible. Hijab is an Islamic concept of modesty and privacy practiced by many (though not all) Muslim women. Wearing a headscarf and loose-fitting clothing runs counter to triathlon culture, where skin-tight clothing is the norm and no one bats an eye at an athlete racing in a swimsuit or Speedo.
“I love being a triathlete, but it doesn’t have to mean I compromise my beliefs,” explained Villareal. “I am a Muslim woman and I have to be true to who I am. For me, it means I can dress competitively and still observe my religion in the way that I dress and the way I treat people.”
Though Villareal’s clothing is an outlier in a field of spandex-clad athletes, she says she’s rarely felt like an outsider. “The only frustrating part is getting a religious exemption to race covered [in a tri kit that extends to her wrists and feet] whenever it isn’t wetsuit legal. Most times, I have to meet with officials the day prior to the race to seek this permission,” she said. “Otherwise, besides the occasional questions about my personal comfort–‘Are you hot?’–I have found that triathlon is a sport of amazing people who have never asked me to make a choice or made me feel unwelcomed.”
Today, Villareal continues to defy stereotypes and encourage people to join in on the triathlon fun. Her social media accounts (branded “Modestly Tri-ing”) are a mix of training log, inspiration, and tips for hijabi athletes. She has consulted with Haute Hijab to help develop a comprehensive athletics collection to address the needs of hijabi athletes. The line will launch in September, and Villareal will be one of the main faces of the advertising campaign. It’s a role Villareal is proud to step into, as she hopes it will encourage more people to tri.
“I love hearing from other hijabi women that tell me that seeing me race gave them the courage to tri or even go to the pool,” she said. “However, I’ve heard from more than hijabis–women and men alike have said they see me and feel like anything is possible.”