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Amna Al Haddad: Championing sport in mental health advocacy

Becoming a self-made sports pioneer, navigating mental health, carrying the burdens of being the first, and holding on to your authentic self while the world labels you is no easy feat.

Amna Al Haddad, who became the first Hijabi Emirati to compete in Olympic weightlifting in 2013, had to do it all.

“I often asked myself who I did this for, and the answer is I did all of this for myself. Not to be the first, not to be in the media, not for society, but for myself,” she says.

One day when she was 19, she decided to get up and go for a walk. That simple act made her realize she had the power within herself to change the reality of how she was feeling, and it was a turning point in her life.

“I became an accidental athlete as a result of feeling really unhealthy and depressed,” says Amna, who dedicated her 20s to weightlifting. Today, she is on a mission to share the many lessons learned on her journey, advocating for mental health and the role of sports as a positive aid in transforming one’s mindset.

Growing up, she enjoyed sports but didn’t have the option to experience it on a higher level than the physical education offered in schools. “Back then, society didn’t encourage women to become athletes.”

She began CrossFit in 2011, becoming the first Arab woman to participate in the Reebok Crossfit Asia Regionals 2012. “It was great to be a part of that environment and experience that kind of determination and human power,” she says.

Amna quickly realized that she wanted to focus on the Olympic lifting part of CrossFit, and decided to head back home from Korea and make the Rio 2016 Olympics her goal. “It was such a crazy idea that I myself did not realize what I was getting myself into.”

At the time, Amna was a full-time journalist working to highlight the underrepresented stories of the Emirati community, but she quit her full-time job to focus on her athletic goals.

When most athletes begin training at the age of nine or 10, Amna was entering the race at the age of 22. “In China, they start at the age of three with gymnastics, so that their bodies learn to be flexible in certain ways and ready for optimal sports performance. When you’re in your 20s, you already have a certain way that your body has learned to be.”

Amna had to unlearn and relearn her body, and at first struggled to find a coach who could train her within her category, eventually deciding to train herself. “I had to learn 10 years worth of new ways of moving, strength training, and Olympic-standard technique in three and a half years, and re-learn with each coach how to lift properly.”

During this period, Amna was garnering a lot of attention from some of the biggest brands and media in the world. But while society was quick to label and praise her success, Amna recalls that when she needed support, it was an emotionally draining experience that she had to navigate alone.

“I had to wear so many different hats – do I fight to train or fight to find sponsorship? I had to do social media, marketing, write proposals to raise funds, and be a full-time athlete.”

The expectations of society also began to affect her negatively at one point, shaping her own expectations of herself and creating a persona that she couldn’t connect with.

“While the world was defining me, I asked myself why I allowed this. There is a lot of expectation around women when they are doing something for the first time and that is very unhealthy. There is an attachment to these labels that women are given, it’s nice to have, but it’s a double-edged sword.”

Amna points out that being the first does not mean you must also be the best. “Being first means you’re opening the door, you’re showing that it’s possible. I was training with the hijab because it was who I was at the time. When you’re first, you also have to deal with all the trials that come with that,” she says.

In 2015, she left the comfort of family and the UAE and moved to the United States to begin training for the Rio 2016 Olympics, and there she found a coach experienced in training athletes starting at a later age.

“He was the kind of coach who will not let you add a kilo without a consistent technique,” explains Amna. “There are people who lift enormous weights, but if you’re not doing it with the integrity it deserves, it’s not impressive.”

Her marker of success was when the coach told her that she was lifting with the technique of an Olympic weightlifter, but six months before the qualifiers, she was injured with a bulging disk in her back and could not put any weight on her legs, or so much as lift a plate.

She flew back to the UAE for treatment and was advised by her doctors to not continue, as she would risk permanent damage to her body. However, Amna was determined to keep going and began her training from point zero.

Amna recalls being partially fuelled by the anger of why the injury was happening as she was getting so close to her dream, and what it was trying to teach her.

Her goal was realized when she was selected to head for the Asian Championships – an Olympic qualifier – with the UAE women’s team.

“We would train for 10 days straight, with doubles a day. I was still in pain. That was the point you had to just do it and shut out the rest. Seven girls competed in the qualifiers and the UAE board had a meeting to decide who would go to the Olympics, and deep down I knew it wasn’t me,” says Amna. “I found peace in that because I had done everything I can and beyond.”

Following that experience, Amna decided to close that chapter of her life, now applauding herself on her foresight for the 2020 Olympics – which did not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt my path moving forward was encouraging young people to take sports seriously, and advocating for mental health.”

Often letting go of a version of ourselves, and an intense period of dedication to a goal comes with grief, and Amna says she navigated that period by learning to set aside her ego and realigning with her feminine power.

“I feel like we have this attachment to who we were and how we have to stay on that path, we live in a certain box of who we are. I thank my past self because she did the work, and me today is doing the work for me five years from now.”

The firsts continue for Amna: In 2016 she became the first Emirati woman to receive the Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellowship for Mental Health. She also became the first Emirati to have a chapter in “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls,” a series of titles that are redefining the way we tell young girls stories about what women can be.

Through her mental health advocacy, she pushes for everyone to understand that we all feel pain and deal with it in different ways. “I want people to realize they can repurpose pain. You can change it to empower you and change your story.”

She recently contributed a chapter to “The Possibilities Project,” a free handbook for students to help them on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and career success.

“My goal is to give people hope that they have the power to change their life, you can be your own enemy or your own best friend. Express your feelings as you feel them, but don’t live in them.”

Follow Amna on Instagram: @amna.s.alhaddad