In this episode of the #AskASwimPro Show, we’re in St. Louis, Missouri with Jeri Villarreal! Learn more about Jeri as she discusses what it’s like being a triathlete, full-time student, and mother of three kids!

How did you first get started in triathlon?

I was speaking with a family friend who stated I should get into triathlons since I can run and swim. I mentioned that I didn’t know how to bike. However, I had made a decision to stop saying “no” to challenges. So I accepted that challenge and haven’t looked back since.

What was it like doing your first triathlon?

Competing in my first triathlon was an amazing experience. My family was there cheering me on the entire time. I heard my kids as I was swimming and I kept saying to myself, “you can’t drown now, the kids will never get in water if they see you drown”. So I basically survived the swim and got the bike and just didn’t stop from there. Crossing the finish line was so exciting. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I did that. It was almost like I didn’t realize what I was doing until I was finished and I was like, wow. 

How do you balance modesty in triathlon which is a sport filled with skin?

Whenever I look at a challenge, I don’t even consider any of my attributes and an obstacle. If I want to achieve it, I work hard to found out how best to accomplish it. I’ve never asked for permission but have come to triathlon and asked, “how can you accommodate for this”. Based on USAT rules, I cannot cover between my knee to ankle or elbow to wrist. I always speak to race officials prior to race to ensure they understand why I need to cover and how they can accommodate for that.

What does it mean to you to wear a hijab?

Hijab has been personally empowering to me. There is so much that people judge when they see you as a woman. However when covered, I feel like now you have only my words and my deeds. Hijab has really helped me to find my voice, to embrace new challenges and work to disrupt the narrative of women in general but specifically women who cover for modesty. I feel very honored because wearing hijab is literally the visual representation of my spirituality. Something that is very personal to me, yet is now very visible and public. I feel a great responsibility to represent Islam with positivity and love in everything that I do.

What are the most common questions (and answers) people ask you as a hijabi?

I mostly get asked if I am hot. And basically, I’m usually hot when the temperature is hot but having my skin covered from direct sunlight has a lovely cooling effect. So honestly, the answer is “not as hot as you’d think”. Kids will ask me, “why do you wear that?” and I think that has to be my favorite question. I feel like it is the pure form of what adults mean when they ask me “aren’t you hot?”. As adults, we don’t always know how to ask those fundamental questions. Just ask me why and I’d love to tell you.

What advice do you have for hijabi’s in triathlon and swimming?

Don’t let anything stand in your way. You’re going to get looks at the pool. It doesn’t matter. Get in the water and give them something to remember; upset their narrative. Make them reevaluate any of their stereotypes and preconceptions. I think it is very important to normalize our participation in sports. 

What advice do you have for swimmers who are just getting started?

Everyone started from zero at some point. I remember not being able to make it  25 yards. And every time I swam, I drank so much pool water with every breath I took. I remember breathing only to one side and resting a full minute at the wall every 25 yards. That seems like yesterday because it kinda was.

It was less than 5 years ago and the progress I’ve made since those days is really amazing. Every swim I got better and stronger but I couldn’t see it and one day I literally cheered in the pool. I said, “My God, look at me now!” Swimming is a process, you just have to keep doing it to get better. The more time you devote to swimming, the better you will get. One day, you’ll just surprise yourself.

What are your favorite types of workouts?

My favorite swim workouts are when I get to swim with paddles! I love the way it feels to actually feel the water. I also love drills that really identify a weakness that I need to work on. It’s great when the lifeguard gets that nervous look as I try a one-arm drill on my weak side and look like I’m drowning. It’s really quite embarrass but those drills really make a difference and help me equalize my strength on both sides.

How do you train for triathlon during Ramadan?

I mostly train the same way. I won’t perform any long distances during fasting hours. My longest run will be 1 hour, a bike ride no longer than 1.5 hours and 1 hour swim. Long run and bike are for evening hours. I train in the early mornings prior to fasting or right after Suhoor or after Iftar in the evenings. I competed in a Sprint triathlon while fasting and felt amazing afterwards. The key is hydrating prior to beginning my fasts.

Read also: How To Fast and Swim During Ramadan

Explain a hurdle you experienced in your sport, how did you get past that?

When I first wanted to train for triathlons, I didn’t know how to ride a bike. The last time I was on a bike, I was 13 years old, even then, I wasn’t very proficient. My first time back on a bike, my friend held the back as I struggled to balance in the parking lot of a bike shop. Fast forward 362 days later, I completed my first century ride. I just got on the bike after that parking lot and rode 2 miles, then 8 miles, then 16 and then my first 22 miler.

I just kept going each time, pushing myself to go further and further. I remember some days just saying, “sure, why not”  when examining routes that took me outside my comfort zone. I began to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Then I signed up a century ride. To be honest, there were some tears during the last 12 miles, but completing that ride was so amazing and seeing my team at the finish, cheering me was the most unbelievable moment for me.

How do you balance, family, three kids, full-time job, running an urban farm and training?

I schedule my entire day, by the hour, starting at 4AM and ending at 9PM. I don’t use exhaustion from training and an excuse for not doing things with my family. If I’m training for 3 hours, I know when I come home I need to get ready to take the kids out to the park or to birthday parties, etc. I had not been urban farming for the past  couple of years, however I am planning to begin large scale organic chicken farming. 

Like all things in my life, I will schedule this out as well. I am currently going to school full-time for my MBA and that has been the most difficult thing to schedule. Homework takes as long and it takes me to figure it out!

What do you think can be done to increase diversity in triathlon participation?

I think if you look around and realize no one in your sport looks like you, I feel like you have a responsibility to bring as much visibility to what you do as possible. It’s hard to image yourself doing something when you don’t see someone doing it that looks like you. 

Who do you look up to?

I admire anyone who hustles to reach their goals. I grab inspiration from those people in my life everyday. People like my mom who almost 30 years ago started her own Engineering firm. She showed me what it was like to go after a goal, even if at the time it was unheard of. It’s only crazy until you do it.

What are you most proud of?

I meet people that tell me that I’ve inspired them in some way. That to me is so amazing. And I’m so honored by this. However, I didn’t realize that my children would also be inspired. My proudest moment was seeing my two youngest children compete in their first triathlon. Just one month after I taught them to ride a bike, they were competing in their first triathlon because they wanted to. My daughter asked me to sign her up for a kid’s triathlon and then said to me, ” I want to be JUST like you”. I told her, “No, be better”.

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