Muslimah Triathlete Jeri Villarreal on the Fear of Failure

Iron Man 70.3 in Monterrey, Mexico is one of Jeri Villarreal’s favorite triathlons.  Photo credit: FinisherPix®

Iron Man 70.3 in Monterrey, Mexico is one of Jeri Villarreal’s favorite triathlons. Photo credit: FinisherPix®

This Eid al-Fitr, we’re celebrating Muslimah athlete, Jeri Villarreal. After growing up on the sidelines, she started competing in triathlons in her late 30s. In the past four years she has completed over 22 triathlons. She’s been featured in Runner’s World, SELF and the Chicago Tribune. She also maintains a blog and posts about her faith and competitions on Instagram.

Villarreal didn’t start running until she was 36-years-old. That’s when she stopped saying no to challenges and started saying yes. She gradually increasing her mileage, relearned how to ride a bike, and built endurance in the pool with a swimming coach. A year later, she completed her first triathlon at age 37. The path was not easy but it was rewarding.

The now 42-year-old wife and mother of three stays busy with graduate school, training for triathlons and co-parenting her three children. Becoming a triathlete meant giving herself permission to be spend time alone training for races. But it also means spending lots of time together as a family. Her partner and children accompany her on the road and cheer her on from the sidelines. Her youngest kids—a nine-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy have also followed her example; they train with a youth triathlon team called Junior Sharks.

Becoming a triathlete also helped Villarreal to overcome her fear of making mistakes. She explains that the “fear of failure was really strong in my teens and 20s and I didn’t want that for them [my kids].” As a young adult she also had a hard time visualizing herself in spaces and activities where there weren’t any faces that looked like her own. That changed when a family friend, another woman of color, introduced her to triathlons.

During her first year, Villarreal did a lot of sprints. In fact, every time a race popped up she signed up for it. That eventually led to half Ironmans and then full Ironmans, a grueling race consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run.

This year she has a busy race schedule: 4 half Ironmans, 1 full Ironman and a few smaller triathlons. She has traveled as far away as Cartagena, Colombia to compete. Her favorite annual competition is a triathlon in Monterrey, MX, her husband’s hometown. Why? She loves the spectator friendly course and the celebration afterwards with her in-laws.

While she began racing to challenge herself, she stayed in part due to the supportive community that has embraced her and her hijab, a religious head covering worn by some Muslim women. “During the race, I’ve had entire conversations with people,” Villarreal laughs. Even though triathletes can sometimes come across as a masochistic bunch, behind the stereotype is a warm, helpful community. “If they see you looking at your bike, they ask you if you need an air pump or if you need help,” Villarreal adds, “I’ve never seen something where people are so supportive and happy to be there.”

Her hijab also makes her a bit of a local celebrity at races. She gets a lot of high-fives, curious questions and requests for photos. Villarreal has even been mistaken for Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. African-Americans make up less than 1% of the sport, and the number of hijab wearing triathletes is even smaller—which makes her a minority within a minority of competitors. Yet, her own athletic and faith journey defy stereotype or assumption.

Villarreal grew up as a Lutheran but fell in love with Islam while she was in high school. At age 17, she made the decision to become a Muslim. Villarreal laughs at the recollection: “I called the mosque and asked them what is the procedure if one should want to become Muslim. They explained everything to me. I was like, I got to call you back because I have to talk to my mom.” Her mother, stepfather, little sister, aunt, grandfather and grandmother were all there when she converted to Islam. Villarreal recalls that, “for years, people were like, weren’t you that girl who brought her entire family to convert?”

Her mosque has been home for the past 25 years. Villarreal and her husband are being intentional about raising bi-cultural Muslim kids confident enough to overcome any fear of failure. They love riding bikes and doing new things as a family. For her 41st birthday, she went on her first hike and she climbed a tree for the first time. Her reaction was pure bliss: “I can’t believe I waited this long to climb a tree. Years ago when they [her children] were little, I would’ve been like, oh my gosh, you can’t climb a tree, you’ll fall.” Not anymore. The fear of failure and of fear of falling diminished, creating space for new experiences in her life.

Villarreal has this advice for busy people who are interested in triathlons and don’t know where to begin:

  1. Figure out your available time first. Write it down.

  2. Select an online training plan, such as couch to 5k or couch to triathlon, then find a way to dedicate yourself fully to training during that time.

  3. Ask for help. Find a coach or take a Masters swim class—or do both!

Overall, her favorite aspect of training is developing relationships with others. “It’s one of those sports where people really try to help each other,” Villarreal says, “People go out of their way—they want to see you succeed.”