The Triathlete - PARVIN SINGH PANESAR
Unshorn Hair, Beard And All!
I carry my Sikh identity everywhere I go. In a way, it tells the world that Sikhs are in every sphere of life and are here to serve.
Yes, there is still a large population out there who are not informed about Sikhs, and that is why I proudly prefix ‘Sikh’ to whatever I do. I am proud of my heritage and have never ever thought that Sikhi has held me back from anything.
If I ever find that there is anything holding me back, then I know it is what I need to do more vis-à-vis discipline and structure in my daily life.
I write this post to clear the air about any suggestion that Sikhi may be in any manner disadvantageous in sport, especially in what is my personal favourite, the Triathlon.
For over a year, there has been a documentary kicking around titled ‘The Odd Couple - A Story of Two Triathletes’ in various movie festivals and seminars. The film depicts a journey of a Sikh guy who loves to be active outdoors, but the movie is falsely promoting that being a Sikh may be challenging in the sport of triathlon or that Sikhi is in some way holds back the guy shown in the movie.
And that guy is me!
Triathlon is a sport where you first swim, then bike, and then run, and all three are done one after the other. In challenging distances. Hence the name … Triathlon.
There are varied distances to the sport, depending on the age and training level, the most popular being what is known as the ‘Ironman’ distance: “a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.22-mile (42.20 km) run, raced in that order and without a break.”
In order to be very efficient in all the three stages -- because it is the totality of the competition that counts -- one needs to save every possible minute and second. For example, if any of you follow the sport of swimming or cycling, you’ll have noticed the muscular quads and clean shaved faces.
Now why is that? It is because body hair causes air draft, and at the elite level shaving your legs can add to air efficiency and cut as much as 4-5 minutes in time. Nobody likes to shave their legs, but the elites or the pro’s do it, because that is the easiest and cheapest way to save money and yet gain speed.
Sikhs keep unshorn hair. It is one of the articles of Sikh faith. Generally speaking, Sikhs have always been quite athletic and adventurous. Our ancestors were great swimmers who, for example, during battles with the Mughals used to topple their boats when crossing rivers.
Sports and physical activity have been, and remain an integral part of Sikh way of life.
My intention here is to clear the air about myself, as portrayed by the movie and the movie banner. While the director overall did a great job with the movie, there are scenes in the movie which have been edited so as to exaggerate things to make and stretch a point which is not entirely correct.
There were scenes shot, to cite but one example, where I was asked to fiddle and adjust with my bike helmet on my head, even though I never have to in my real life. To falsely give the impression that my joorrah may in some way pose a hindrance.
I never have an issue with the helmet just as women who have long hair never do either.
People get into the sport of triathlon for various reasons, some personal, some emotional and some have ambitions to be pro-athletes. My reason, addition to others, was to definitely encourage Sikh representation in the sport, and connect with others to tell them about my faith. And all this without holding a seminar or distributing pamphlets or holding up placards.
A number of my colleagues from work have seen me in the men’s room tying a turban and dressing my long beard after a shower, and this has only initiated some kind of talk about my appearance.
How did it affect me? There is always one or two who learn a bit more about Sikhs and Sikhi by talking to me.
I agreed to become a part of the movie based on the initial idea of inspiring Sikhs, but the finished product -- beyond my control and out of my hands -- gave it a twist and turn which I did not agree with or endorse.
I have always been clear of one thing, that Sikhism teaches discipline and it teaches it in a very unique way. Keeping unshorn and clean hair and tying a turban is one of those ways. I am part of a faith that already teaches to be disciplined and learn time management, and that is exactly what the sport of triathlon demands.
One needs to manage time, and be disciplined in training, eating habits, time around the family and time towards gurbani. How can this kind of a faith be ‘inherently disadvantageous’, as suggested by the film?
Yes, there are challenges, but how can you compare Sikhi being a challenge with a genuine challenge of someone who is a one-leg amputee -- the case of the other star of the film with whom I was compared by the filmmaker?
Coming out of the swim, the head is not covered; hence, first putting on a bandana to cover the head and then a cycling helmet takes precious moments, but over the years, I have been able to perfect it into an art and save time.
Then, my beard. It protects me from those ice chills in the ocean water, and the wet beard cools me off when I’m on the run. And I just love it.
Shaving my legs -- yes, it is a challenge, and not worth the choice between the triathlon and my Sikh faith. I turned to being innovative to reduce the air drag, which would mean either get more powerful on the legs, or buy some expensive tights to cover the legs as well.
Whether this will get me into the elite list or not, I do not care.
Sikhism has never been disadvantageous no matter which sphere of life I enter. It has helped me build a unique circle of active people around me, some of whom never knew about Sikhs before they met me. It has helped me to be strong in my healthy habits.
If any one thinks that being a Sikh puts hurdles in your way in any activity, all I can say is that one is then having difficulty in understanding Sikhi, not in tackling the triathlon.
A real challenge is a physical challenge (well, it also has a mental aspect to it), which my triathlete friend Jeff Schmidt is dealing with (as a one-leg amputee). He was inspirational to me, no doubt, and I certainly cannot compare his challenges with mine, definitely not with the issue around covering my head during the transition between one activity and the next.
I am thankful to Jeff for mentoring me initially when I was new to the sport. Funny thing is that when I get into the water or put on my bike helmet, I never get the feeling that ‘Oh! I have a beard and head bun’. I am too focused on the task and not on my appearance.
If those who have watched the documentary, ‘The Odd Couple – A Story Of Two Triathletes,’ and have got the impression that Sikhi is disadvantageous to an athlete or a triathlete, they have been misled, unwittingly or otherwise.
The challenge of the triathlete is in the mind, not in false assumptions or imagined limitations.
March 5, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Reshi Singh (Houston, Texas, USA), March 06, 2017, 9:06 AM.
I have seen the film and to me it presents a positive image of Sikhs.
2: Shilpa (Phoenix, Arizona, USA), March 06, 2017, 11:20 AM.
I am not a Sikh, but many of my friends are. I have seen the film as it was highly recommended by my friends. I was highly impressed by it, its story and how Parvin and Jeff are shown in the film. At no point did I feel that there was a comparison. I saw it as two people having their own struggles and how they overcome it. I came out feeling so upbeat. I did not see it as a wrong depiction of anyone. It shows Pravin as saying that he will not give up his religion for anything; that is such a positive message and in no way showing him or any other Sikh in a negative light. On the contrary, I saw it as a film that will inspire youth and people like me in theirs 30's to do their best in overcoming some of our own daily challenges.
3: Parvin Singh Panesar (United States), March 06, 2017, 11:34 AM.
@Reshi Singh ji - Sure, it depends on the version of the film you saw. The later versions got heavily trimmed to suit the time constraints of seminars and film festivals, and lost direction. Also, the point that concerns me most is that the movie posters say: 'inherently disadvantageous'.
4: Parvin Singh Panesar (United States), March 06, 2017, 11:47 AM.
Thanks, Shilpa. I have no way to post the banner of the film as it was recently promoted at the UNAFF seminar, where the wordings said, "Jeff is a below the leg amputee and is a mentor to Parvin, who thinks that adhering to the appearance of his Sikh faith is inherently disadvantageous and holds him from competing as a triathlete." At no point ever in my life had I ever thought so, or said so. Never. Challenges are different, even getting up from the bed is a challenge. So that is my point. Do I deny the movie, No. Do I say there is a false promotion through banners, Yes.
5: Riti Singh (Dublin, Ireland), March 06, 2017, 12:39 PM.
The movie was very well done. It not only showed a Sikh but also showed that a Sikh can do anything he or she has made up his/her mind. My son was overjoyed. I thank the filmmaker for showing such a wonderful image of Sikhs. What matters to me is that it had a positive impact on my child.
6: Divya (California, USA), March 06, 2017, 3:51 PM.
Veerji, I have met and heard the filmmaker. I have also seen the smaller version of the documentary. Kudos to the filmmaker for doing such a wonderful job. She has done tremendous seva for the Sikh diaspora. Films like these are rare. You should whole-heartedly support the film.
7: Tari Singh (New Delhi, India), March 06, 2017, 7:10 PM.
The Odd Couple was a simple story told very effectively. The message to an audience was clear and after a long time I felt so proud of seeing such a film. Bollywood shows Sikhs in a certain light, but documentaries have a different feel. I have not seen any film that talks about an issue that is so current in India and abroad alike amongst Sikhs. The state of Sikh youth is in shambles. They need to see such films and we to do a lot more to inspire them. Let's come together and tell everyone that Sikhs can do anything in Punjab and elsewhere. I am 60 years old now and have supported many a Sikh cause. I can assure everyone that this is a film worth seeing and supporting.
8: Teji Singh (New Delhi, India), March 07, 2017, 12:06 AM.
I have been a runner myself and have found it very hard to keep up with the training schedule. If someone says that there are no challenges for Sikhs in the field of sports then that is incorrect, even though they are easy to surmount. Having lived it for almost 20 plus years I can say that we do have somethings that need to be taken care of that others don't have to worry about. Having said that, it is how you overcome those hurdles that matters. The film shows that in a right manner and has even inspired me to restart my routine. Let's create more such films to inspire a new generation now.
9: Arjan Singh (USA), March 08, 2017, 6:33 PM.
First of all, thanks to Parvin ji for making this film with the filmmaker and thanks to Harleen ji for making the film. It does show what we already know around the world: that the Sikh community has been world class in sports and athletics for many decades. They have successfully competed in Olympics and won many medals. I do agree with Parvin for speaking up because we Sikhs already are looked upon with curiosity and suspicion and have to go the extra mile to prove ourselves. In a way, it is beyond discrimination and it puts a question mark on an athlete’s capability before he/she has even started at the Start Line of a race. Yes, in theory a Sikh person may have to make extra arrangements to compete in a certain sport. But then how does one explain the Sikh military fighting in the Sino-Sikh war in the 1840s Tibet? I am appalled by the level of ignorance shown by some Sikhs themselves in this forum. It is not only outright ignorance but it is also annoying for parents that now they have to explain this film and some of its scenes to their children. No other community shows its disadvantages when they make a documentary, unless it is to demonstrate a physical handicap. This film actually misleads by suggesting that having a top-knot (joorrha) is a handicap, when actually it is not.
10: Gurbux Singh (Chatsworth, California, USA), March 20, 2017, 10:11 AM.
I have been following the trail of comments even though I have not seen the movie. I sense what the discussion is all about and am frankly appalled at some of the comments that insinuate that long hair in a joorrah of an observant Sikh is a hindrance and impediment to succeed in some sports. I played championship grade competitive badminton in Rangoon, Burma, where I grew up and always played with a joorrah and yes, I learned to make sure it did not come loose with judicious use of hair-pins and string. A small price to pay in time for maintaining my identity. My younger brother was a cycling champ and is now the National Cycling Coach of Myanmar and always rode with his Sikhi intact in a joorrah and puggh on road races of up to 200 kilometers. When the rules required a helmet in track races in a velodrome, it went on his head without the puggri. He has represented Myanmar many times in international meets. To us it came down to if we would want to compromise and give up our most important thing in life which is our Sikhi to do something of no spiritual or cultural value. Our father was a champion golf player and represented Burma in international matches and always played with a beautiful puggri on his head and never once did I see him use a hat or cap. This is my opinion and I am not passing judgement on some who choose the path of least resistance. I see who I am every time I look in the mirror.