Zeinab Rezaie trains for the IRONMAN World Championship in Utah this October while raising money for Afghan women and seeking asylum for herself.
For Zeinab Rezaie, the world looked very different just 2 years ago. In February 2020, she became the first Afghan woman to complete an IRONMAN by crossing the finish line of the 70.3 Dubai race.
Women’s rights had been steadily increasing in Afghanistan throughout the U.S. occupation, and Rezaie felt optimism that the trend would continue.
Then American forces withdrew in August 2021. The Taliban seized control of the Afghan government, and Rezaie fled to the U.S.
Instead of running for women’s right to be athletes, Rezaie now runs for their right to go to school — or just walk outside without a man.
“It’s the 21st century, but the women and girls of a whole nation cannot go to school or do sports,” she said. “And it’s because of a terrorist group that’s ruling the country.”
A Radical Regression in Afghanistan
Even before the U.S. withdrawal, Rezaie and other Afghan women started running with help from NGOs.
Back in 2017, Rezaie, along with three other Afghan women, trained for endurance competitions with the help of two nonprofits, She Can Tri and Free to Run. The latter offered critical support for their training in Kabul, Afghanistan, including lengthy car rides to the few places that permitted them to exercise.
If the women tried to run in the street, they would literally face a risk of stoning.
Yet the nonprofits were making progress. Free to Run continued to grow and find new opportunities for Afghan women, including Rezaie.
Then, in August 2021, everything changed.
The U.S. began its withdrawal after 20 years of occupation, and Afghanistan descended into chaos. The Taliban immediately returned to power, erasing2 decades of social progress for women.
Women weren’t just prohibited from running. Now, they could no longer go to school or even walk outside without a male escort.
As for Rezaie — she barely escaped.
She spent the past year in an accelerated Master’s program at a Colorado university. Her husband spent most of those 12 months stuck in a refugee camp. Her brother is still there today.
No longer able to support women as athletes, Rezaie shifted priorities. She now raises money for a secret school for women.
From Beginner to Bid for IRONMAN World Championship
In just a few short years, Rezaie went from complete novice to sponsored endurance athlete.
She first discovered the opportunity to run while working on her undergraduate degree at American University in Kabul. A few women in her dorm had started training with Free to Run, and Rezaie quickly joined them.
Early on, they avoided public attacks by training in a small backyard, running tiny laps over and over. Then the nonprofit found them a real training space, but it required several hours of navigating Kabul traffic — just for a one-hour run.
“Training was a challenge,” Rezaie said.
But she endured, and ultimately embraced long-distance running. Rezaie completed her first marathon in 2017, and then finished a 250k ultramarathon in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert the following year.
By 2019, Rezaie started working with She Can Tri, which took her to training camps in Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S. The nonprofit also provided equipment and event entries.
Throughout it all, Rezaie stayed busy. She juggled endurance training with her undergraduate degree and a full-time job. Eventually, she earned admission to Colorado State University through the Fulbright international exchange program.
Her plane to Colorado was slated to take off from Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021 — the Taliban took over on Aug. 15. After “one of the most difficult nights of her life,” she managed to leave Afghanistan behind.
A year later, Rezaie is training for the IRONMAN World Championships in October, where she will be the first Afghan woman to ever compete in that caliber of event.
Jackie Faye, the founder of She Can Tri, said she could never have imagined the challenge of getting women like Rezaie to this point.
“When we recruited four Afghan women to train as their country’s first triathletes, we had no idea that a worldwide pandemic and government takeover would be added to the mix,” Faye said. “From day one, we said we wanted to go to the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship and, four years later, it will be a reality.”
New Life in Colorado, but Hardships Remain
Rezaie likes living in Colorado because it reminds her of home. With its cool weather and tall mountains, the state feels a lot like Kabul, she said.
As a Colorado State MBA student, Rezaie needs just six more courses before she graduates. Yet life remains difficult.
With the help of She Can Tri, Rezaie raises money for a school in Afghanistan that educates women in secret, mostly through online classes.
New rules in the country mandate that women can only attend school until sixth grade. The secret school will take them through 12th grade.
“My country now is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” Rezaie said. “And also with the economic situation, violence against women and girls is rising.”
As if all that weren’t enough, Rezaie deals with other problems. She finally got her husband back in June from the humanitarian camp he stayed at in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The camp still houses thousands of Afghan refugees. One of them is her brother, who she’s still trying to free.
Equally pressing is her immigration status. She’s in the process of applying for asylum in the U.S., where her visa expires in December with her graduation.
“These immigration processes are not easy,” she said. “They are very time-consuming … I’m worried.”
‘Free to Run’ for Now: An Uncertain Future
Rezaie doesn’t know what the future holds.
Before the Taliban took over, she had planned to return to Afghanistan after finishing her Master’s. She’s been studying social entrepreneurship and hoped to leverage her knowledge to create opportunities for Afghan women.
That’s likely impossible now. The Taliban could imprison her if she returned. So, she will have to find ways to help women in Afghanistan from afar.
When she competes in the IRONMAN World Championships this fall, Rezaie knows exactly what — and who — will be on her mind.
“I will be thinking about women and girls in my country,” she said. “I’m free to participate in an international event with people from all over the world. To go to school. I have all the freedoms here, while they do not have the freedom to even go for a walk without a male companion.”
More than anything, she wants to keep fighting for her country.
“The world has power to raise its voice, to bring pressure against the Taliban government, so women can get their basic rights,” Rezaie said. “That’s everything.”