Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani-American computer engineer, has been Olympic Weightlifting and Crossfitting for three years. Recently I had the chance to interview Kulsoom on how she trains during Ramadan, what it’s like to be one of the only hijabi weightlifters in the world competing at an international level and how she represented Pakistan as its only female weightlifter.
Abdullah made headlines in 2010 when she was denied from participating in the National Weightlifting Championships due to her clothing. Through her persistence, she eventually went on to become the first woman in those championships wearing clothing that covered her head, arms and legs.
When Kulsoom isn’t training, she is a computer engineer or can be found making nut butter at kbanutbutters.com. She also blogs about her experiences as a weightlifting hijabi at www.liftingcovered.com.
Here’s our interview with Kulsoom:
How did you become a professional weightlifter?
I started Taekwondo in graduate school. I generally wanted to be stronger so I did what I could in the gym on my campus. Close to graduation and after, I stopped Taekwondo. I found out about
Olympic Lifts, snatch and clean and jerk, from the website. I thought that those lifts would be great skills to learn, while also getting strong, because they incorporate strength plus power, speed, timing and skill. I could not find a place to learn how to do them, but found out about Crossfit, and the fact that their programming incorporates Olympic Lifts.
I did both Crossfit workouts and learned to OL (Olympic Lift). I started at the end of 2007. I loved to lift, and I would attend separate class sessions on weightlifting in addition to doing Crossfit workouts. I also liked the Crossfit programming, because you learn a lot of different skills and train in different time domains for general physical preparedness. Finally, at the beginning of 2010, my coach convinced me to go to an open local weightlifting competition. I liked it, and the community of athletes and coaches I interacted with. So I continued to go to competitions, and ultimately lifted enough to qualify for the American Open 2010 in December and nationals.
What do you love most about weightlifting?
I have always wanted to be stronger so I think to some extent; I have always been interested in it because of that reason. When I did it as a supplement to Taekwondo, I realized that it helped me in that class. Then when I got into Olympic Weightlifting and Crossfit, I was happy with the progress I was making, my strength was increased, it gave me confidence, helped me deal with stress, and I ultimately got addicted. To me that was my exercise routine, similar to others going to a workout class or a gym on a regular basis. Olympic weightlifting, compared to power lifting, incorporates more range of motion, speed, power, timing and technique. This extra challenge made me want to pursue it more, especially after I started competing. In general, weightlifting is good for the health, even if you don’t want to be competitive. As we get older, we need to keep bones strong and keep our muscle mass, because we lose it over time.
What does the weightlifting community think about your hijab?
The hijab or headscarf was not much of an issue as it was with covering the arms and legs. Any athletes or coaches who were not happy about it did not say anything to me. I would say generally many were neutral and a good number were supportive and happy about the rule change, so that it would allow more participation in the sport.
Describe the experience of competing at a professional level
I have competed at the USA national and international level. For USA National competitions, when I went to the first one, that was the culmination of all the efforts and time spent. The boundaries were officially broken. In the next one, I had less stress leading up to it and did not rush, so I had some more fun at that one and got to meet and interact with other people, such as athletes and coaches. It is a great experience to see people perform in person; you also get feedback and encouragement from other coaches. The other advantage to the second competition, was that I felt that anyone who had negative feelings over the decision for the clothing modification, probably either got over those feelings or felt neutral. Time must have showed that it was not a big deal, the sport did not change.
At the two international competitions I have competed at, I represented Pakistan. The first was a different kind of stress than my first USA national competition. I had one month to know I was going (the Pakistan Weightlifting Federation approved of my participation and registered me for the competition) and prepare. They are more costly, especially because of the international airfare for myself and my coach, so it took more effort and funds for me to go. More athletes versus national, everyone speaking different languages, different cultures and a more diverse set of people. So that was more for me to absorb. I really like to travel, so in spite of the stress of dealing with logistics, I enjoyed the trip, meeting so many different people and seeing a new country. I felt that everyone I met was supportive of my participation and happy Pakistan was represented. Many were surprised that I was mainly by myself. Only my coach traveled for a few days for the day I competed, and then the Pakistani Weightlifting Federation chair.
As a Pakistani-American, how did your community react to your competing?
I think they have generally been supportive. I have met people who are very happy and encouraging about it and received many emails as well. If anyone has issues with me, they have not contacted me directly, similarly they might post on message boards or perhaps comment in news articles online but it would be of a different attitude, such as what am I doing, only males should do this.
Why did you choose to represent Pakistan in your weightlifting championships?
Since there has never been a female on the Pakistani weightlifting team, and they were letting me represent Pakistan, it was going to allow me to compete at international competitions. I have hopes that it will help foster more female involvement in sports, especially in South Asia.
How do you mentally train yourself for a competition?
For most competitions, things have been hectic leading up to it so I don’t get much time to think. But the few that have been calmer, I take each day leading up to it like a regular one. I remind myself that I have been doing these lifts for a very long time, my workouts in the gym are much harder than what I do in competition. The night before I will read or watch a funny sitcom, have my clothes and everything ready for when I wake up. The day of, I will get mentally pumped up, visualizing successful lifts, maybe motivational music. When I walk up to the platform to perform a lift, I breathe, focus, say Bismillah (In the name of God) and just go for it. After you go to a few, you get used to competing, so the nervousness and tension is reduced. You also learn what you need to do for yourself to perform your best.
What challenges do you face with training while fasting and how do you overcome those challenges?
Generally, I try to eat as healthy as possible between sunset and sunrise and drink plenty of water. In the gym, I try to listen to my body as much as I can, and breathe. I put ice packs on my neck and back, under my scarf, in between rests between reps and sets.
The first day I started fasting for Ramadan this year, I took a rest day from training. The second day, I went to train around 6pm (sunset/fast break is around 8:45pm in Atlanta). I only did singles for the snatch and clean and jerk. For the snatch I went up to 37.5kg (about 70% of my max) and 45kg for the clean and jerk (70% of my max as well). Because of the heat, humidity and fasting, when I do the clean and stand up, I have less oxygen as usual, I need to take more breaths and cannot always complete the split jerk as well as usual. Because of this, I did a few more cleans only up to 55kg (about 75% of my clean max).
The main challenge was getting over the feeling of thirst, which increased as I was losing water from perspiration. I tried to make a conscience effort to take deep breaths in between my lift attempts and hold an ice pack to my skin. It was challenging, but I accomplished more than I thought. After I trained, I went straight home and opened my fast.
The second day, I did a usual length workout. Power snatch up to a few kilos less than I normally might then the jerk recovery drill was almost similar volume and weight compared to usual, and back squat I limited to sets of 2 and up to 80kg (85% of my max). That second day was much better than the first day, so I acclimated to fasting sooner than I thought I would. I took another rest day after the second day, and have now continued on schedule depending on how I feel.
My diet during Ramadan:
Suhoor/Sehree (Pre-fasting meal) – Mainly protein, for example: scrambled egg plus egg white cooked in butter with some vegetables & cheese, meat or fish and usually a few chocolates I made out of coconut oil, coconut cream and unsweetened cocoa powder. I drink a few glasses of water before eating, and a little bit after eating. I try not to fill myself up with too much water because I go back to sleep for a few hours.
Iftar/Opening fast – I eat three dates and drink water. I then pray maghrib (evening prayer)and after that, eat a meal of protein, good carbs (fruits and/or vegetables) and fat. Fruit chaat is a favorite of mine, which is a fruit salad with spices mixed in. I will continue to drink water and eat something light
later at night. I try not to eat too close to sleeping, so my sleep will be more sound and I can get up more easily for the pre-dawn/pre-fast meal.
More about Kulsoom:
Abdullah started competing in Olympic Weightlifting competitions in March 2010 and obtained the Crossfit Level I Trainer Course certification the same year, which teaches the CrossFit’s methodology, concepts, and movements. She received a bachelor degree in computer engineering from the University of Central Florida. She then earned a doctorate in electrical/computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She launched www.liftingcovered.com to document experiences weightlifting in an effort to compete at U.S. national competitions. She has attended her first U.S. national competition in Iowa in July 2011.
Her athletic feats and determination culminated in an invitation to deliver remarks following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the U.S. State Department at the Eid ul Fitr reception 2011.
At the International level, she has represented Pakistan as the first female (and first at the international level to compete with hijab) at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships. Her second International competition representing Pakistan was the 2012
Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea.
At present, Kulsoom is conducting research in Atlanta, Georgia, as a visiting scholar at her alma mater, Georgia Tech . More information about her research can be found at the following website: http://kulsoom.net
You can follow Kulsoom: