It's April 24, 2020. Seher Kaya woke up at 4 a.m. before the sun had risen to eat her first meal of the day before heading straight into a training session. Afterward, she would return home and go to bed. Kaya wouldn't eat or drink again until the sun set around 8 p.m. Then she would return to the gym for her second training session at 9 p.m.
This routine lasted for the next 30 days during the month of Ramadan.
Two years later, 24-year-old Kaya attended her first Games, becoming the only Muslim woman to compete in the individual division at the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games. But Kaya has been making waves for Muslim women in sports long before her debut in Madison.
Photo by Charlotte Foerschler
A New Era
Growing up in Norway, Kaya's Turkish Muslim mother was adamant she be involved in sports and taught her to appreciate a muscular body.
"Her parents didn't think (sports) were important, and it wasn't normal for girls to do sports at that time," Kaya said. "She wished to give us something that she didn't have herself."
Any time Kaya turned her nose up at a sport, her mother would say, "OK, let's find a new one." In middle school, Kaya found handball and fell in love with the team aspect. She played handball through high school, and her body began to change into a more athletic build as she trained.
She soon grew old of handball too. Hearing her mother's advice in the back of her mind, Kaya was on the search for another sport. To stay active, she started in a globo gym, then moved to GRIT classes in Norway, where she was told by her friends that the classes she was attending were CrossFit-inspired. One night, they sat her down and presented her with one of the CrossFit Games documentaries.
"They put the documentary on, and we watched it with all my friends, and I was like … "This is crazy. I've never seen (such) muscular girls … . I love it so much,'" Kaya said.
It would be three of the most popular CrossFit women from Iceland who stood out to her the most —Katrin Davidsdottir, Annie Thorisdottir, and Sara Sigmunsdottir. She was in awe of their physique and athleticism.
This was Kaya's new sport.
Kaya knew she needed to start with the basics and learn the skills she was observing the athletes doing on the screen. Programming her own CrossFit workouts in 2018, Kaya soon joined CrossFit Oslo — home of eight-time Games athlete Kristin Holte — to gain the help of coaches to train for CrossFit competitions.
Just a few months later, Kaya was on the competition floor in London, England, at the 2019 Strength in Depth CrossFit competition. She signed up for the female Rx’d division, competing at the same venue as Sigmundsdottir, who competed in the female elite division.
Kaya finished the weekend in 10th place, and although she had been doing CrossFit for just one year, she was disappointed in herself for not winning.
"That just motivated me to do better," Kaya said.
The next year, Kaya decided to take a stab at qualifying for the CrossFit Games. She signed up for her first Open in 2020 and was ranked the third-fittest woman in Turkey. Kaya has been ranked the fittest woman in Turkey every year since.
2021 was her breakthrough year. Kaya qualified for the CrossFit Asia Invitational Semifinal, taking seventh place, just a few spots out from qualifying for the CrossFit Games.
So again, she returned home to train even harder.
In 2022, Kaya took second at the Far East Throwdown Semifinal and received her first invitation to the CrossFit Games. She wouldn't be watching the CrossFit Games from a TV screen — she would be on the screen. Kaya finished the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games in 29th place and returned to Norway with one lesson: "Be a good example and always have a smile."
Photo by Charlotte Foerschler
"Let Me Show You"
Kaya learned from a young age how important sports were for women. She is taking her knowledge and platform to educate the Muslim community about women in sports, inspiring girls who wish to follow in her path.
Although she hasn't lived in the Middle East, Kaya says it seems to be a challenge for women to be involved in sports.
"I want to be the face of the Middle East," Kaya said. "And people say, 'Oh, but you had all the opportunities.' Yes, maybe I have. But let me teach you, and let me show you."
Kaya will be questioned about her muscular build by friends and family. Mostly, it is based on curiosity. She will explain to them how her CrossFit training and nutrition make her fit. When they say, "I can't do that," she will respond with, "Yes, you can. Let me show you."
Photo by Charlotte Foerschler
In 2020, Kaya exemplified the dedication she had to both her religion and her sport during Ramadan. "It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline — of deep contemplation of one's relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran," says Vox.
The dedication Kaya has learned from being a devoted Muslim has transferred to her dedication to the Sport of Fitness, proving she could withstand the discipline needed to be faithful to her religion and the discipline needed in the gym to excel at her sport.
"I just felt powerful," Kaya said. "I was like, 'I can do this,'… not many people would."
This year, Kaya will postpone Ramadan until she finishes her season to avoid injury. Muslims are permitted to break the fast of Ramadan when there is a danger to their health, and if Kaya keeps the volume required to train for the CrossFit Games while fasting, it could cause serious injury.
Kaya is competing at the 2023 Asia Semifinal in Busan, South Korea, this weekend for a chance to attend her second CrossFit Games. As she battles for one of two tickets to the Games, she continues to show the Muslim community just how powerful a woman can be.
Seher Kaya at the 2022 Far East Throwdown | Photo by @do_project_