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Interview with Jeri Villarreal: Becoming an Ironman competitor at age 40

Meet Jeri Villarreal, a triathlete and Ironman competitor from St. Louis, Missouri. She started competing in triathlons in 2015 (at age 39!), and is now a four-time Ironman 70.3 finisher. This year, Jeri is attempting to set the World Record for fastest time to complete an Ironman on every continent. We (virtually) sat down with Jeri to learn more about how she got started and what keeps her going.


Tell us about your path to becoming a triathlete and Ironman competitor.


I think the first challenge that I had to overcome is that belief that you're born an athlete, or you have some genetic predisposition to be an athlete and, if you don't, then too bad. First I started with running, and then I learned how to really swim. I thought I knew how to swim, but I knew how to survive. Then I even had to learn how to ride a bike. 


The year that I decided to start triathlons was a year I decided to stop saying no to things. It was only about four or five months between signing up and competing in my first triathlon. I found out that when you work hard at something you don't have to be born to do it. You don't have to be special. It's just you and your commitment. If you are committed to it, you can do amazing things.


My first accomplishment was as little as riding my bike two miles, and swimming to the end of the pool. That was a huge accomplishment for me. And from there, you know, that first year I finished 8 triathlons. By the end of that year, I was pretty fast and proud of myself. When I was like, “Okay, what's next? Let's do something else,” I looked into the Ironmans I had heard about. It has really taken off and brought me to a place where I just want to push myself and challenge myself to see how far I can go. I just don't feel like there's any limit to that.


That is incredible - what is an achievement that you are most proud of, and how did you feel after accomplishing that milestone?


My first half Ironman in Monterrey, Mexico was probably the biggest deal to me because I was definitely the fastest, and I was so determined. My family came to watch, and you don't want them to come down to watch you cry because you didn't finish. The whole time I was just thinking, “Oh my gosh, you gotta go, you gotta just keep going.” My husband and family were at pretty much every turn. The moment that I started thinking, “Whoa, what did I get myself into, this is really hard,” somebody from my family was there. So that was perfect.


That race was the turning point. Like “What else what else can I do? This is just amazing.” It was the one that made me want to do everything—I mean like anything anybody said I was probably willing to say yes to.


What motivates you during times of endurance?


I remember all of the things that you give up in order to do something: sleep, time with the kids, going places, hanging out with friends. I made a commitment to train for something. I think about that, and I just keep moving.


Have there been any particularly challenging moments during your time as a triathlete?


I had two “did not completes.” One was a really difficult swim in Lake Michigan. The waves were crazy and I just couldn’t see over them. There were a lot of times where I wanted to quit, and I just couldn't imagine what that would look like. So I just kept going and kept swimming even though I ended up missing the cut off by a couple of minutes.


What are some tips you would give to anyone working towards a challenging goal?


Originally, I would compartmentalize my achievements. After doing triathlons, I had this feeling like I could do anything in sports, instead of anything anything. There was an “aha” moment. Once you go for a challenge and succeed, let that be a lesson to you that there's no limit. Let that success bleed over into your work life, your home life, your school life.


Sometimes when we tell ourselves that we can't do something, it's really just fear. It's not that you can't, it’s just fear that you can't see yourself doing it. You have to be able to visualize what success looks like for you personally. As silly as it might sound I can visualize myself in a race, or I can visualize what it looks like to be successful—the feeling of the weight of the medal or my family hugging me. I think that's really important because it makes that challenge real for you and achievable.


Sometimes we don't have role models that look like us. I have a couple of friends that wear hijab, and that train for triathlons. That has been really special and important to us—to show up so that other people can see themselves in that same position. It's amazing how many people see me and can see themselves.


So what is next?


It’s probably the biggest thing I've ever done. I am working on setting the World Record for Fastest Time to Complete an Ironman on Six Continents. I'm aiming for 70 days to complete all of them.


Any final thoughts?


I really want to make sure that people know that they can do anything. There is one thing that I tell my kids about the word “can't”—it only refers to a point in time, it's not a final answer. If you say “I can't do this or I can't do that, I'm just never gonna run because I can't,” you should know that it’s only right this minute. I tell my kids to say “I'm not really good at doing this right now, but, you know, maybe in the future I will.” I just don't like “can’ts.”