Sedef Ozcelik can swim more than two miles, bike 112 miles and run 26 miles — one after the other, without stopping.
One of handful of Turkish women competitors in the Ironman triathlon — perhaps the toughest daylong global endurance competition — 27-year-old Ozcelik became the fastest and youngest woman from her country when she completed the course in 10 hours and 58 minutes in 2014 in Barcelona. Athletes must have intense discipline and endurance to complete the 140-mile triathlon of swimming, cycling and marathon within the 17-hour allotted time for the full distance Ironman.
The Barcelona event was her second full Ironman in one year, having completed her first in Zurich in July 2014. Now she’s in Geneva training for her first global championship for Ironman 70.3 in Queensland, Australia on September 4, in which the race is cut in half and competitors must finish in eight hours. There, she’ll join 3,000 athletes “who will embark on a … journey that presents the ultimate test of body, mind and spirit to earn the title of Ironman,” according to the Ironman website.
Her resilience goes well beyond physicality, however. At age 8, she lost her father Cahi in a car accident; at age 19, she lost her mother Servet to cancer after six years of caring for her, and her brother Aybars — her only sibling — grew up apart from her in a boarding school for orphans. She has extended family who helped, but her youth was forsaken by the series of tragedies. Ozcelik says Ironman gave her purpose after the losses: “I was withering away, and the sport made me alive again.”
Ozcelik also works as a food engineer and is studying for a Masters in chemical engineering at Turkey’s prestigious Bosphorus University in Istanbul. It was a computer engineer at the university who initially introduced her to the sport. Of the three stages, Ozcelik likes cycling the most because it seems an apt metaphor for the ups and downs of life.
Ozcelik’s achievements are no small feat in Turkey, where women are severely underrepresented in sports. Women make up only 18 percent of all coaches and 30 percent of total athletes, according to Turkish government statistics, but participation and achievements have grown in recent years both nationally and internationally, said Canan Koca, president of the Turkish Association of Sports and Physical Activity for Women. “Women athletes are virtually ignored in Turkish media,” he added. “Sedef’s achievement is very significant. I hope she can be a role model for young women and girls.”
Itir Erhart, co-founder of Adim Adim, Turkey’s first charity running group, met Ozcelik and was immediately impressed with her humility and strength. Ozcelik swims every morning before work and runs after work. “What makes her special is that she competes in a heavily gendered [event] — it is even called ‘Ironman’ — as a very young Turkish woman, and she does so well,” said Erhart.
On a breezy spring evening, the petite and toned Ozcelik jogged around the idyllic Emirgan Park amidst the famous Istanbul tulips, before enjoying a traditional Turkish dinner of fried manti and homemade grape leaves at her favorite restaurant. “My life is a dramatic soap opera, so the only way I can keep going is to be positive,” she told Women in the World, with an infectious laugh.
Ozcelik grew up on the seaside in ancient Troy better known now as Cannakale, Turkey. She fondly remembers swimming in the sea, playing water hockey. When her father, a civil servant, died in a car accident, her mother made sure her two children became self-sufficient. Servet Ozcelik encouraged her daughter to be the best athlete and student. Ozcelik was only 13 when she discovered her mother had sarcoma. The family was devastated. “My mom was my best friend. She told me ‘You’ll cry one day but you will continue your life because you’re my strong daughter,’” Ozcelik recalled.
It’s those words that push Ozcelik to finish a race when her leg cramps and pain shoots through her body.
As she nursed her mother’s ailing health, Ozcelik completed high school and was accepted into a university in Istanbul, but she chose to stay in Cannakele and study at the local college.
In 2008, Ozcelik’s maternal grandmother died in May. Then five months later, her mother succumbed to cancer. Ozcelik said her mother was in severe pain, and she was ready to let her go. But then 10 days after her mother’s funeral, her paternal grandfather died. “I felt like I’m no longer living,” she said, taking a sip of her lentil soup. Then she pointed to the sky. “But they are all with me still.”
Ozcelik excelled in her education and eventually moved to Istanbul, where she attended Bosphorus for her master’s and was recruited for work but, she said, she felt aimless until she discovered Ironman.
She spent her scholarship money on her first professional bike and another $2,800 to register for her Ironman race in Belgium in 2012. She finished the race exhausted within the time limit, but satisfied.
Ozcelik considers herself apolitical but doesn’t like the conservative direction in which Turkey seems headed. She dreams of moving abroad. Her participation as a woman in Ironman has raised eyebrows among some older athletes.
“They thought I couldn’t do it at first. They doubted me. But I showed them,” she said, smiling widely.