They say every big journey begins with a single step, but for an unexpected sisterhood of Leeds women it looked more like the push of a bike pedal.
When Fiona Hoare and British Triathlon put out a call for weekly Open Access swim, bike and run sessions in the city’s Cross Flatts Park, they didn’t expect every single applicant to be female, let alone the majority Muslim.
Salma Hussain, 35, is one of 12 women who have attended the Sunday lessons which have transformed the group – most of whom were cycling novices – into avid, confident athletes.
“When I initially started, I felt like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do it. Why am I living in the dark ages?” said the mum-of-two.
Hussain lives with Lupus, an autoimmune condition which leaves her fatigued and short of breath. At first, she had to stop every ten minutes. Four months later, she can complete full laps without pausing.
“It was just really daunting. And I kept asking myself, ‘Will I be able to do it? Am I ready for this? Is this the right time?’
“But I saw everybody persevere. And there was this bigging up the sisters in the group attitude and mindset, supporting each other and seeing each other triumph.
“The moment when I actually started cycling, it was so emotional. It was such an emotional experience, like a rollercoaster.
“And then I said to Fiona, ‘Teach me how to do roller skates. Teach me how to get on a hoverboard, teach me how to do an electric scooter. Because all of a sudden a whole new realm opened up for me where I knew I can step into the unknown and I might be OK. It might just be fun.”
The project in Leeds also includes a partnership with two Mental Health Charities in the city, social welfare charity Zest and the Leeds early intervention programme Aspire, which provides support to young people experiencing first episode psychosis.
Hussain is open about her own challenges, many stemming from a move from London to Leeds which left her feeling alone and in a “dark place”. The sessions were a lifeline. “Without a shadow of a doubt, this definitely goes beyond just us coming for a physical activity,” said Hussain, who was able to find empathetic ears in her fellow cycling novices, many of whom are fellow mums.
“We connect, we spend time together. After every session, more or less, we go to the café here and we get a drink and just chit-chat.
“The week before last we sat down and had an hour’s discussion on feminism, where we stand with it. It’s just beautiful to hear what everybody’s opinions are on such a sensitive topic.”
Swim, Bike, Run Activator Fiona Hoare has grown to appreciate how vital – if accidental – the women-only element of the collective became.
She said: “We’re breaking all these communication barriers down.
“It’s given [them] the confidence and the space, the personal space, to become themselves.
“There are no or very few inhibitions of having men around. As far as culturally what they wear, maybe the language they use, they’re much more free to speak.
“And we have some very frank and honest conversations about women, about women’s rights, the problems of riding a bike, the physiology of riding a bike, life.
“It’s been friendly listening.”
The women themselves, Hoare said, were the “driving force” behind her attempts to begin the swimming portion of the programme in January—but their enthusiasm has been met with practical problems.
“Access to the pool is challenging,” she explained, “in particular on Sundays because it’s so busy with families and kids. But they really want to do it.
“Because it’s an all-women group, and mainly Muslim women, I’m trying to do it in such a way that I have female lifeguards and we have privacy.
“I’ve seen the progress with the cycling, and I took about five or six [Aspire] clients who went swimming and [saw] the change in their confidence levels. It was just phenomenal.”
Yet despite the very real barriers, one senses, nothing will stop this sisterhood from diving into the deep end.