When Shaikha Al Qassemi’s officially became a Red Bull athlete, no-one was more surprised than her. She was a latecomer to CrossFit, only starting in 2013 in her twenties, but was instantly enamoured with the sport. Posting regularly about the journey into CrossFit on social media, Red Bull were quickly alerted and in 2016, Al Qassemi was approached to be the brand’s first female athlete in the Middle East.

“A guy who trained at the same gym as me used to work for Red Bull and he told me they had seen me on social media and liked what I stood for,” Al Qassemi tells Sport Industry Insider. “He put me in contact with them. At the start they just sent me free cans of Red Bull every month and I was delighted with that.

“Then after a few months an athlete manager got in touch and asked me to be a Red Bull athlete. Honestly, I was shocked I was their first ever female CrossFit athlete – really this is something I am very proud of.

“The rest is history. I’ve done a lot of work for them, they always supported me. They’re amazing people and they really make you feel like part of the family.”

RED BULL ACTIVATIONS

Al Qassemi is in good company now in the Middle East with Red Bull currently sponsoring a host of athletes in the region including UAE motocross star Mohammed Balooshi, Saudi esports player Abdulaziz Alshehri and Omani drift racer Haitham Al Hadidi – among many others.

It is a position she has relished, taking part in a number of community activations with Red Bull – focused mainly on encouraging Arab women to embrace fitness.

The Dubai Fitness Challenge has been a particularly important time for us in the past couple of years,” Al Qassemi explains. “We’ve done workouts at universities and schools and it’s very humbling. Most people don’t know me and they think ‘who is this girl and why does she have big shoulders and big legs?’

“But I’ve found that people are very interested to hear how I got into CrossFit and they’re usually very surprised that there is an Arab woman doing this – especially when I tell them it’s not just exercise, it’s lifting heavy weights and competing. It’s been very cool doing all different types of activations with Red Bull and meeting people from all different countries, all nationalities, all religious beliefs.”

A PLATFORM FOR FITNESS

Such was Al Qassemi’s determination to help empower Arab women, she opened the Platform Fitness Gym in Nadd Al Hamar, an untapped area away from the saturated gym hotspots of Dubai Marina, JLT and Al Quoz. Initially a mixed facility, she quickly changed it to ladies-only, providing a safe, welcoming environment for those new to CrossFit, as well as those looking to improve fitness.

“I specifically didn’t include the word CrossFit because I didn’t want women to think ‘oh, CrossFit, not CrossFit’. I think it scares people a bit whereas ‘fitness’ seems a bit more accessible. Although we offer CrossFit, we are not a ‘traditional’ CrossFit gym.

“They can be very intimidating when you walk in and everybody is shouting, throwing stuff down. When girls come into my gym, it’s very relaxed, very quiet. The girls are laughing, they’re joking. It’s fun.

“We’re not pushing people to compete in CrossFit or anything. It’s not about lifting a certain amount or a certain number of reps – it’s more about longevity. We want to encourage a lifestyle change that involves training well but also eating better and generally being more active.”

The Platform Fitness Gym has been a panacea in the fight against female inactivity in the Emirates, working alongside government and private sector initiatives to improve the health of women in the UAE. Al Qassemi believes there has been a seismic shift in perception – notably towards her sport of choice.   

“The amount of women who have started CrossFit is incredible,” she says. “Some are doing Olympic lifting, some are strictly CrossFit, some decide to be triathletes . But the main thing is that women want to be active now.

“Fitness is something that is giving back to themselves. Whether they are mothers at home or in full-time jobs – it is for them; it’s their time, it’s their space.”

NEW CHALLENGES AHEAD

Having spent the past few years focusing on others, Al Qassemi is now set to embark on an exciting new chapter – moving to Spain to train full-time in a bid to eventually qualify for the CrossFit Games, the sport’s flagship annual event held each year in the United States.

Despite her departure from the UAE, Red Bull is still firmly behind Al Qassemi and she is confident she can continue to influence the fitness landscape in her homeland.  

“It’s been great to get the support of Red Bull and I think they understand that actually going and passionately pursuing a fitness goal in this way will hopefully be inspiring to people in the UAE and the Middle East.

“So much of what I do is on social media and that won’t change – I want to show people how dedicated I am to achieving this goal, how determined I am to succeed.”