In just five years, Amna Al Haddad went from out of shape journalist to international female, weightlifter. She helped get her country, United Arab Emirates (UAE) get a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio and has been featured by Nike in its Inner Strength documentary series. Shirzanan interviewed Al Haddad on her hard won success, ambitions and the changing climate for women in sports in the Gulf region.
What inspired you to become an elite athlete?
I saw my life fall apart on different levels and made a decision to take charge and become healthy and fit. I wanted to achieve more and decided to take on sports professionally. I quit my job as a journalist to pursue that dream.
You fought hard for every step of your journey. Could you describe how you felt when you arrived at the Olympic qualifiers event?
It was an amazing experience to be around world class athletes and world champions. To have gone from an unhealthy person to compete at an Olympic qualifier in a matter of 5 years, made me feel that I am capable of achieving anything I put my mind to. Getting the results, however, was not a simple process or a direct one.
After we finished the Asian championships, we learned that we finished 7th and 2 points shy from qualifying. [Only the top 6 countries qualify]. However, we had some hope the results would change after the stringent doping test process. Following this, we moved up to 4th place and earned one quota! But this news didn’t come until 2 months after the qualifiers, so it was very delayed.
What does it mean to earn one quota?
A point process decides how many athletes will represent their country at the Olympics. Though the entire team contributed to qualifying, we earned one berth for one athlete. Since we are a young country in the sport of weightlifting–8 years–we qualified for one spot in Rio. My teammate Aisha Al Balushi will be representing us.
You have received a lot of attention, support and media coverage during your quest for Rio. That included a Nike commercial and shooting a starting pistol at a competition at the 2015 Nike 10K #WeRunDxb race with 13,000 runners – the first Arab female to do so. Which experience(s) have been most gratifying?
I absolutely love my feature with Nike’s Inner Strength series of online documentaries. It truly depicted my thoughts, feelings and actions in what my journey has been and what it has meant to me.
How have opportunities and conditions for Muslim females in sport changed in since you got involved?
There is definitely an increase of women who are now participating in sports in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states. It is becoming more acceptable and encouraged in terms of health and fitness.
You are now both a role model and an icon in women’s sports. Share some feedback you’ve received.
I was delighted when a friend in Portland – an American Muslim convert – told me that my story has helped her get past stares she gets in the gym when she trains covered. It was the reason she did not quit.
There are some men who have been fully supportive of my journey and have been kind in mentoring and directing me. To get my counterparts’ support means together we can create a positive world.
Can you tell us a little about your background? How does your own family view your athletic pursuits?
My family has been supportive of my pursuits although they were surprised at first because I studied journalism and worked as a journalist before pursuing sports. My sister traveled with me a number of times internationally.
How would you rate your experience training in America?
It was an irreplaceable experience – some of it good, some of it difficult. There were plenty of discoveries and I formed deep and strong relationships, especially with my 78-year-old next-door neighbor who was both a mom and a best friend. We would sit and talk for hours, tap our legs while listening to music and share a Coke once in awhile. I also stayed at a friend’s house during my last days in the US. It was great to experience living with an American family.
What’s next for you?
A lot! To put simply, I will be taking an active role in sport education and development in the UAE and taking part in the biggest Fitness Expo in Dubai during the UAE National Sports Day. I am also happy to announce that I am writing a book about my journey.