For most, a goal to make it to Regionals would not warrant a creation of a blog, a public announcement, or any kind of gumption. But Al Haddad’s fitness journey is not like most. The Muslim woman started this journey when she was 17. She became interested in weightlifting, but it came with many ups and downs. When she started, she made great gains in strength and power. “However, I just didn’t keep up with my training as I went into a deep depression by 2009.”
Al Haddad fell into poor eating habits, became inactive, and was put on anti-depressants. “But one day, I woke up and realized I have so much in me that I can do, and decided that was not the life I wanted to lead,” Al Haddad explained. “By the end of 2009, I seriously got into training with specific workouts, sets, and reps – the whole nine yards. It’s been great.”
She discovered CrossFit in April 2011 after stumbling upon an ad for CrossFit LifeSpark – Games athlete Candice Howe’s affiliate. “I was curious as to what it was, so I got in touch with Candice. I told her about my interest in lifting heavy weights, “ she said.
But to do CrossFit meant it was time for Al Haddad to explain her passion for weightlifting to her family and friends. Until this point, she managed to keep it a secret and trained completely on her own. “Some of my friends knew I lifted weights, but not to [what] extent,” she said. “My mother, at first, was not happy about it because she did not know that women can lift massive weights, but look super lean.”
In Al Haddad’s world, women are supposed to be feminine and not participate in things that would be considered a man’s activity. “This is one of the things that my society probably is not aware of, therefore often shocked to hear that there is an Emirati female weightlifter in her early 20s.”
She came out with a blog and focused on writing educational posts about the benefits of weightlifting. From there, the blog turned into Al Haddad’s chronicles of training and the challenges she goes through.
Reactions were mixed. Her mother and some in her society still did not understand what she was doing or why she was doing it. “Surprisingly, I have found a great amount of support from local men – which I did not anticipate at all – which shows that men in the region are supportive of women and view women more equally to them in such a sport,” she said. “So I would say I have gotten both reactions. Those hesitant and those supportive, which is OK.”
When Al Haddad started training with Howe, they worked on perfecting her lifts. “Her fitness had very little of what she needed,” Howe said. “At the time, I didn’t have any personal training slots available and was in training for Regionals, so I invited her to join me in the gym when I was doing my training and said I would keep an eye on her movement and give her some guidance. From there, I began feeding the CrossFit seeds.”
Howe incorporated more CrossFit into her lifting and soon, Al Haddad was hooked. “My love of CrossFit grew on me each [session], especially when I was introduced to Olympic lifts, exercises I never knew existed, and mainly seeing how fit I was getting because of these tough, but awesome [workouts].”
Howe said Al Haddad has a dream of competing in the 2016 Olympics in weightlifting, and thinks CrossFit will benefit her Olympic training. “This year was the perfect year to get her involved.”
Another important aspect of Al Haddad’s life is her religion. She wears a Hijab when she is in mixed company, which means wearing the head cover during daily workouts. Howe said the Hijab does not limit her in the workouts and does not make Al Haddad feel self-conscience. “Training in the box, she is in a safe and trusted environment, which really helps,” Howe explained. “She knows no one is staring at the ‘Muslim girl’ in the class. That’s not to say they don’t stare – it’s usually in amazement as she reps her pull ups or shows off her strength.”
Al Haddad said wearing the Hijab shows not only that she is a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a headscarf, but also that her gender, background, and religious views are not a stumbling block. “If anything, it pushes me to work harder. However, recently I realized, aside fromKulsoom Abdullah, an American-Pakistani Muslim CrossFitter and weightlifter, there are no videos or pictures of women in the media who represent covered female weightlifters,” she said. “So in a way, it is making a statement … and a strong one. One which I hope will bring about more hardcore female weightlifters in the region.”
Until then, she has her sights set on competing in the Open and qualifying for the Regional. She said her main challenge now is making sure her shoulder mobility is on par. She does mobility work for at least 30 minutes every day. She also needs to focus on skill work such as muscle ups and rope climbs. Howe said she is working more with Al Haddad on gymnastics movements. “She is strong, but has some mobility issues we are working on,” she explained. “Her strength is steadily growing, but her CrossFit skills and capacity need work, so for the next six to eight weeks, I am trying to immerse her in CrossFit. She is thriving and making weekly gains.”
Al Haddad said Howe is more like a friend than a trainer. “She truly cares about my well-being in all aspects, be it work, personal, daily achievements and struggles … she’s always there,” she explained. “ That kind of support and her trust in my ability and belief in me is really one of the biggest ways she’s helping me get ready.
“I have come a long way training with Candice in terms of quality and form. I can only push harder each session, each day, and expect the unexpected. I hope to make it as part of the top 60 athletes in the region and move on to the Regionals,” she said.
Howe said she is a great showcase of the diversity the sport is reaching. “Amna is a little firecracker who is inspiring Emirati women. As a female athlete, she has to contend with the fact that she chooses to cover her head for religious reasons, but still wishes to do CrossFit. She is causing quite a stir in terms of achievement and is inspiring a generation.”
If Al Haddad makes it to the Asia Regional, her plan moving forward is to “kick some ass and go to the Games. Why not? Nothing is impossible.”
Al Haddad describes CrossFit as something that “gives me peace of mind, discipline, patience – something I lack considerably – and it’s simple. It makes me feel so freaking good after I get those [personal bests].”