By Morgan Smith Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jeri Villarreal who will be competing in the Chicago Triathlon Sunday says that "(Muslim women) shy away from the sport because of discomfort, with the uniform or stares, or asking for a religious exemption."
Jeri Villarreal is used to people asking her if she is hot.
In the minimally clad world of triathletes, Villarreal sticks out with her fully covered body: sleek black arm coolers, shiny leggings and a tightly wrapped hijab.
She is Muslim and, despite the sport's strict rules against coverage from the elbow and knee down, competes fully covered thanks to the religious exemption.
The St. Louis mom of three will be one of the first hijabi athletes to compete in the Chicago Triathlon on Sunday, Aug. 26, according to Scott Hutmacher, a brand manager at Life Time Tri, the company helping to organize the Chicago Triathlon. It's also a first for Villarreal, who will be competing for the first time in the Olympic distance. She is usually a sprint competitor.
"(Muslim women) shy away from the sport because of discomfort, with the uniform or stares, or asking for a religious exemption," Villarreal, who converted to Islam when she was 17, says.
In accordance with her religion, which says women should cover themselves for modesty, Villarreal has been wearing a hijab since her conversion.
She decided to become a triathlete three years ago, shortly after her 38th birthday and a personal vow that "wouldn't say no" to challenges anymore. So when a friend challenged her to compete in triathlons with her, Villarreal couldn't refuse.
"I was never athletic as a kid, so my former self would pass out if she knew I was doing triathlons," Villarreal says. "It is completely against my character as a younger person." She barely swam, and hadn't gotten on a bike since she was 13, but was steadfast in her desire to learn about the sport.
Now, Villarreal says she's grown to love triathlons, and considers training her "me time" in a world of training, family and work. She keeps busy, juggling a full-time job as a computer operations service lead for the St. Louis sewer district, running an urban farm with her husband, Carlos, and parenting her children.
Sometimes she sneaks in training during the workday, "The Triathlete's Training Bible" hides in her briefcase, she occasionally attends a yoga class during her lunch break and she always tries to bring in a healthy meal to eat after yoga. "My co-workers always tease me for how green my plate is," she says.
Villarreal has had to sacrifice a lot of "normal people" activities to train. Instead of watching television or reading, she spends her downtime working out two or three times a day, swimming, biking or running, and attending group practices with the St. Louis Triathlon Club.
Family time often becomes training time. Villarreal's two youngest children, Lola, 8, and Braulio, 10, began triathlon training with their mom in June. Lola wanted to be just like her mom, Villarreal says. Lola and Braulio are competing in the Chicago Triathlon on Saturday.
Her husband, Carlos, prefers to relax. "She's become stronger and more disciplined when we bike together now. She goes fast and is determined to beat a time, and I'm like, 'Relax!'" he says. "But when we swim together, now I know ... she's a way better swimmer than me."
But wearing a hijab presents an extra challenge to her training. "It is very difficult to shop for the right gear, it's not like I can go to my local sporting goods store for leg coverage, arm coolers or a hijab," Villarreal says.
"I have to do a lot of online shopping, which means I can't see the material before purchasing it, and I have less options," she says. Villarreal says she buys a lot of gear from the brand Nashata based in Malaysia.
On race days, Villarreal says she feels a responsibility to represent Muslims in a positive light, especially when people stare or approach her. "I try to be good about it because I don't know if I'm the first Muslim they've met before," she says.
And if people ask her if she's hot? " I want the interaction to be a positive experience, so I'll say, 'Thank you for your interest in my personal comfort' because that makes them realize their question was inappropriate," she says. "But I smile the whole time."
Family and friends speak of Villarreal's determination and patience with her training, despite these frustrations. "Jeri has displayed a strong commitment towards her training, and a consistent improvement," Sally Drake, Villarreal's triathlon coach, says.
In a year, Villarreal will typically compete in eight triathlons, in destinations as far as Mexico or Colombia. It's an admirable feat considering the lack of representation of hijabi athletes competing in triathlons.
Carlos remembers watching his wife run her first Ironman last May in Mexico. There was only 15 minutes left for competitors to finish, and in the thick of the crowd, Carlos and the children spotted Villarreal sprinting toward the line. "She was so tired, and looked like she wanted to cry, but she finished so strong. ... I felt a ton of emotions, it was incredible to see her accomplish this," he says.
While Villarreal says she felt like a "lone wolf" at the beginning of her triathlete career, she's recently connected with hijabi athletes from all over the world through Facebook. "There's really no Muslims in St. Louis, and I hadn't really interacted with hijabi triathletes before I started networking ... but now I don't feel like I'm by myself," Villarreal says.
If anything, her triathlon training has deepened her commitment to Islam. "There's nothing in Islam that says you shouldn't be an athlete, and we only get one body as a gift from God, and doing triathlons is how I use mine," Villarreal says.
On Friday, her family will drive up to Chicago for the triathlon. Villarreal is "nervous" and excited to watch her children compete, but she's mostly looking forward to celebrating afterward with dessert and pampering by her family, she turns 42 on Monday. "What better way to celebrate a birthday than to compete in a triathlon, right?" she jokes.