Growing up in the UAE, Sharjah born Shaikha Al Qassemi always knew she wanted to take her passion for fitness further than just being a hobby.
Image by Adnan Karimjee
In 2012 her life changed when she became involved with the local CrossFit community. She began training and started to realize that women of all shapes and sizes could take part in the sport and succeed. Al Qassemi became a regular on the country’s fitness scene, opening her own fitness destination; Platform Fitness Gym in Nadd Al Hamar. Al Qassemi was determined to help empower Arab women to follow their dreams and pursue their fitness goals. The ladies-only gym offered a safe, friendly environment for those new to CrossFit, as well as women looking to improve their general fitness. But it was her dream to compete internationally in the sport that she loves.
Growing up, Al Qassemi’s passion for fitness went against social norms in the UAE; traditionally an environment where women don’t practice competitive sports. But the fitness enthusiast wanted more than to just train, it was her dream to compete in the CrossFit Games, an annual fitness competition that unites hundreds of thousands of athletes around the world to compete in the world’s largest participatory sporting event. It wasn’t until a move to Spain last year, that Al Qassemi could take things to the next level. After making the life-changing decision to leave the UAE, she is now living out her passion to pursue her long-held ambition of competing in the CrossFit Games. Here we discover more about her journey and her goals for the future.
This past year has been an adaption for all – what has been your experience and what is a lesson you have learnt?
It has been a hard but extremely rewarding year. I have learnt to be grateful for every single day that I wake up living my dream. It has been a rollercoaster of healing internally, physically, mentally and emotionally. Having to move to Spain just a few months before lockdown was really lonely. I was grateful for my friends and family keeping me company on the phone, but human interaction is something that brings me so much joy and it was tough for the first few months.
What first inspired you to follow a path in fitness?
I have always been an active person. From swimming to dancing, to kickboxing, there was always something that kept me going. When I found CrossFit I was in awe of the spectrum of women of different shapes and sizes embracing what their bodies can do instead of how they look. That was something that I struggled with growing up, having a more athletic body in comparison to my friends and I always wanted to look smaller. Once I found CrossFit, I embraced my broad shoulders and big legs and found that my strength and what my body can do was far more rewarding than looking good in jeans!
What is it about CrossFit that you love and what do you enjoy most about competing?
I love that CrossFit has incorporated varied movements in one sport. There’s always something to work on and improve, so the motivation is there to get that 1% better every day. Competing ignites this fire in me that I haven’t felt in anything else that I do, it gives me purpose and excitement regardless of the outcome.
CrossFit has become a global community – how does it feel to be part of that?
It feels incredible. I am constantly humbled by the women who inspire me and that have become my friends, and by the women I have inspired as well along the way.
When you are entering a competition what motivates you?
I can’t describe the feeling of being on the field. You can’t even think for a second, once they call your name, you walk out and soak it all in. The energy is high and electrifying and that is another thing that ignites that fire and motivation in me when I compete.
Tell us a little about your training programme – do you have days off?
Yes, the volume and intensity of training depends on where we are in the season. And since I’m currently coming out of injury, my goals have slowed down to build a better foundation to take on the volume my body was able to take before the injury. I am currently training five times a week, two days off, but every day of the week I walk at least 12,000 steps or cycle. I am pretty active regardless.
We know you now live in Spain and this must have been a big decision for you to leave the UAE – what pushed you to make the move?
It was a big decision, but I truly felt it was time for me to move on from the things that didn’t bring me joy or happiness. To fulfil my dream of competing at a high level, there are so many things that I will need to give up moving forward. There are specific things that are out of my control when I am back home, so I needed to create an environment that better serves my current purpose. It was also a decision I had to make to be closer to my coach and train with likeminded people and learn from them first hand since they have a better experience with competing at a higher level.
Growing up in the UAE with such a strong interest in fitness – did you face any challenges in choosing this path and what were some of the setbacks along the way?
Yes, with anything a person pursues out of passion there can be questions, especially being a woman in the Middle East who is expected to uphold a more traditional lifestyle. My family never imposed or enforced anything on me. We made choices that aligned with respecting ourselves and our family. But being a woman that lifts weights and competes in the same environment as men, wasn’t something that was acceptable and it’s still the case today. So, it was still a struggle for me to constantly question my actions, but I grew out of that and always went back to what my intention is.
How were you supported by those around you?
Those who weren’t supportive in my journey didn’t last long in my circle. I kept those who supported my purpose, cause and dreams close to me and they have been there since the beginning.
How do you hope to inspire other women with your journey?
I hope to inspire women to chase their dreams regardless of the limiting beliefs we hold onto. Our thoughts are not real unless you make them real by constantly telling yourself that you can’t. Correcting these beliefs will give you liberating freedom from fear and scarcity.
This issue talks about women’s empowerment – what makes you feel empowered?
I feel empowered when I am completely being myself.
What are the biggest challenges you face in what you do?
There are many. In the beginning, the Arab community gave me a mix of good and bad feedback. I was constantly getting messages from people that I don’t know expressing that what I am doing is not feminine or acceptable, but for the most part, I received messages from women that I didn’t know telling me that I have inspired them, not only to move more and eat more healthily but also to love themselves more. In the aspect of training, every day is a challenge, you need to separate your ego from yourself and listen to what your body is telling you. As the amount of training increases, so does calorie intake and the amount of time I need to put in to improve my sleep, lower stress and recover.
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
Being honest with myself, and taking the leap of faith to move to Spain.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I would like to compete at a higher level than I have in previous competitive years.
How do you deal with criticism?
It used to kill me internally. But now I understand people’s opinions are only their own and if it does not fit or align in my world then it doesn’t matter.
What would be your alternative career path?
I am currently a Nutrition Coach and I focus on working with women. I launched my online coaching business earlier this month and I’ve been working with clients since last year. I also launched a Healthy Habits Group Program that helps women to create healthier habits every week to improve their sleep, digestion, energy levels and overall health.
What do you think are some of the biggest issues in the UAE related to women’s fitness today and would you like to see happen to change them?
The biggest issue in my opinion is the idea that if women lift weights, they get bulky and undesirable. This is slowly changing in my opinion and women are slowly warming up to the idea that getting stronger is better for their hormones and health.
What is something all women should be doing even if they don’t enjoy exercise?
Walk 10,000 steps a day, see as much nature and get as much sunshine as possible to revitalise yourself on a daily basis.
Talk us through your morning routine.
I wake up, check the time, pet and cuddle my dog Coco and play some music. Once I’m ready to get moving. I drink about 750ml-1ltr of water which is extremely important because you lose the majority of your body’s water by breathing, which is something you do all night when sleeping, so I hydrate myself and make a coffee while the music is playing. Some mornings if I have dreams, thoughts or I just want to be grateful for the day, I would write in my journal then go for a 30-45 min walk with my dog by the sea and around the park. Once I am back home then I prepare my breakfast and another coffee.
The most important things that never change in my routine are:
1- Re-hydrating my body upon waking.
2- Playing uplifting music and being grateful for the day.
3- Getting fresh air and walking in nature.
What is the motto that you live by?
Courage over comfort.