UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH KULSOOM ABDULLAH

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USMAN AHMED SPEAKS WITH THE INTERNATIONALLY CELEBRATED WEIGHT LIFTER ABOUT HER CONTINUOUS BATTLE AGAINST DISCRIMINATION, SPEAKING WITH HILLARY CLINTON AND CREAM IN HER COFFEE

How and why did you start weightlifting?
When I was young, I enjoyed sports, but had no motivation and no role model. It was not until I was in graduate school that I became proactive and took Up Taekwondo at a crossfit gym nearby. My friend’s roommate was on the German national Jujitsu team and encouraged me to sign Up. The instructor was accommodating in my choice of clothing, (a headscarf and covered arms and legs) and soon after, weightlifting became a daily physical routine and my hobby. It also became something that helped me cope with my father’s passing. However, I refused to use “pink” dumbbells (aka female weight restricted dumbbells) because I hated the concept of gender barriers. With my bony wrists, I wanted to pick Up the real stuff, the steel barbell, and make the most of it. It took almost a year for coaches to convince me to compete locally in 2010. I was able to lift enough weight to qualify for the 48 KG weight class at the USA Weightlifting National competitions. I was told I would have to compete in a customary singlet where my legs, arms and head would be uncovered, so I chose not to take part. It was very demoralizing and it affected my training and well being. I was used to dealing with prejudice and exclusion, but I had been having fun at open competitions when I could dress as I saw fit. To be suddenly told that you can’t participate because of your clothes was heartbreaking .

How did your friends and family react to your decision to weightlift at a competitive level?
My parents were very supportive of my education, and I was very fortunate that they gave me the freedom and flexibility to select a major of my choosing. I received a scholarship to attend the University of Central Florida where I received my Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering with a minor in Math, so even with my own choice, I was a South Asian parent’s dream. I then attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where I received my Masters and PhD in Electrical/Computer Engineering. When I started Taekwondo, they were worried, especially my mother, about me getting hurt. When I got into weightlifting, the shock was not as bad since I had already done Taekwondo. But they did wonder, out of all the sports for me to pick, how did I end Upwith weightlifting? Unintentionally, I continued to enter male dominated arenas.

In 2010, after qualifying to compete at the American Open, the USA Weightlifting Committee barred you from contending in the competition due to your clothing. How did you react, personally and professionally?
My story with sports was far from over. I was encouraged by civil rights organizations and lawyers to contest the clothing ruling and I reached out to CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) who asked the United States Olympic Committee and the International Weightlifting Federation to change their policies and allow athletes who so wish to compete while covering their hair, arms and legs.The International Weightlifting Federation heard my case, agreed to change the clothing ruling, and I was able to compete in my first U.S. national competition in Iowa in July 2011. This athletic feat of determination culminated in an invitation to deliver remarks at the 2011 U.S. State Department’s Eid reception in presence of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Later in 2011, I had the opportunity to represent Pakistan as their first female weightlifter in the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships in Paris, France. This was the first time in history that a weightliftercompeted internationally while wearing a hijab. In 2012, I went on to represent Pakistan one more time at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea.

When did being a woman work against you? When did it work in your favor?
I don’t think it had to do with me being a women, but more so of how I dressed. Maybe being a women, and it being seen as a gender/religious/global issue, it helped me get the tremendous media support back then. As for weightlifting – it is generally considered a male activity, regardless of culture and country.  So, some people thought I was crazy, but I was more concerned about myself, my health and my strength.

Weightlifting is a solitary sport, but there’s also a larger sense of social isolation as a female heavyweight strength athlete. Do you find that to be true?
I am used to being alone and I tend to be an introvert. It is more challenging, but has made me stronger. When I encounter a situation that I have to deal with, I find a way to cope and get through it by myself. The downside to this is that I do not always think to ask for help or recognize an offer of help to receive it. With weightlifting, because I went to a gym with others there and others instructing, I was not always alone. Fortunately, I had support from both genders. Regardless of whether you have people cheering you on or not, you still have to pick Up the weight by yourself.

What kind of courage and mindset is required in order to dive under a heavy weight?
You have to believe in yourself and the time you have put into training. When you train with lighter weights, you think about the cues you need to fix your technique. But when you are going for a heavier weight or near maximum attempts, you do not have time to think, you just have to commit to your strength.

What is your definition of strength? What does it mean to you to be a strong woman?
Women have to be strong by default, so I think the adjective strong is not always needed. I believe strength it not just about muscle. There are several pieces of religious texts that help me through tough times, and give me that strength to power through. These texts are helpful reminders, especially with having a positive outlook on life, and help put things into perspective.

What competitions are you currently preparing for?
I am hoping for a spot at the Asian Weightlifting Championships 2016. My dream is that other women from Pakistan also go compete at the Asians. I would like to be on a team, and I think having a strong female presence will help continue to encourage other women. Maybe we could even get a slot in the Olympics for a woman to represent Pakistan in weightlifting.  The Olympics is just one of those competitions that gets the most marketing, and everyone around the world knows about it. It would be a great platform to encourage the current and next generation of female athletes.

Tell me something about Kulsoom Abdullah outside of the gym.
I guess I am like Clark Kent and Superman, or with the new show Super Girl, you could say I’m more like Kara Danvers. If someone does not know me, they have no idea what I am really like

What might people be surprised to know about weightlifters?
Everyone is not the Incredible Hulk!

How often do you visit Pakistan?
Last time I visited Pakistan, was 2008, when my sister got married. I used to regularly visit, as much as once a year, but since my immediate family is in the USA, I do not visit as much. I wish the plane ticket was not so costly, and the travel time and time zones were not so great.

What advice would you give to women weightlifters?
I never thought I would be an athlete, or that my attempts to be one would make me a pioneer and help the next generation of women athletes. You just have to keep trying. Some days will be great, while some days you will think “Why am I doing this?”

 

LIFESTYLE

Fav. vacation spot: I wish I went  on vacations!

Perfume you wear: None, but unscented deodorant

What makes you impatient?: Myself

Addicted to: Imli (Tamarind)

Secret talent: My talents aren’t a secret anymore

You like your coffee with: Cream

Brain or brawn: Both!

Love or money: Love, but it is hard to survive with no money

FASHION

You hate it when you see people wearing: I don’t ever pay attention to what others are wearing.

Favorite designer(s): Maryam (Mary) Shah – My cousin in Islamabad who has shirts (Regular wear and for weightlifting) made for me in Pakistan.

Oldest item in your closet?: My High School jersey

Necessary extravagance: Weightlifting shoes

AT HOME

Fav. piece of furniture in your home: My standing desk

Current show obsession:The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt

Most typically Pakistani thing about you: The way I say “SalamAlaikum “ in a very Pashtun style. I also wear very colourful clothes and patterns, which is a style that stands out here in the USA

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