Photo credit: Sid Hastings/ Chicago Tribune
This past weekend, St. Louis native Jeri Villarreal made history by becoming the one of the first hijabi athletes to compete in the Chicago Triathlon.
She told the Chicago Tribune that she started preparing for the race three years ago when a friend challenged her to be her partner in triathlon training.
"I was never athletic as a kid, so my former self would pass out if she knew I was doing triathlons,” Villarreal said.
In a sport that reportedly has strict rules on body coverage, Villarreal understands what her representation means for other young Muslim women.
I had an amazing race during the #chicagotriathlon This is the largest race in the country with approximately 10,000 athletes competing. My total time was 3:13:40 (the run was cut short due to a heat advisory). People were cheering me at every turn, congratulating me and telling me how proud they were of me. How amazing is? Many people caught the article in today's Chicago Tribune- pick one up today if you can! It was such an privilege to be featured and the photo and article were amazing. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also ran this story on the front page of yesterday's paper. The amazing article in the Chicago Tribune, the exciting kids' race and my memorable race has made this weekend amazing and unforgettable ❤
"(Muslim women) shy away from the sport because of discomfort, with the uniform or stares, or asking for a religious exemption,” she explained.
At age 17, Villarreal converted to Islam and says she has been wearing a hijab ever since. As she’s gotten older, she says she feels a responsibility to represent her religion in a positive light when asked questions about her clothing.
To feel less alone in the sport, Villarreal says she has used Facebook to connect with other hijabi athletes around the world so that they all feel like they have a community of support, sharing:
“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."