By: Moniza Khokhar
Kulsoom Abdullah, 35, is fierce. Really. The 105 lbs Abdullah has a PhD in Electrical/Computer Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, can clear over 125 lbs in the clean and jerk and is only getting started. She’s continuing to compete and has her eye on the Olympic dream. Elan got a chance to speak with her.
Elan: How did you get into weightlifting?
Kulsoom Abdullah: I started Taekwondo in grad school. I generally wanted to be stronger so I did what I could in the gym on campus. After graduation I stopped Taekwondo. I found out about Olympic Lifts (snatch and clean and jerk) from the website. 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 Olympic Lift (OL), as they had coaches who were also competitive weightlifters. I started at end of 2007. I loved to lift more than Crossfit, and I would attend separate class sessions on weightlifting. Finally, at the beginning of 2010, my coach convinced me to go to an open local competition (March 2010). 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.
Elan: How long have you been weightlifting? What do you enjoy most about weightlifting?
KA: I got more into it when I started regularly going to a Crossfit gym, beginning of 2008. 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 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 powerlifting, 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.
Elan: You also hold a PhD in computer engineering. Would you say there are similarities between weightlifting and studying?
KA: I might even say it has similarities to getting a PhD degree. First of all, you have an advisor/coach, who guides you along the way, but you are doing the work. Also, you spend a lot of time working hard every day, you have your ups and downs, sometimes you want to give up and wonder why you even do this. Consulting and collaborating with other professors/coaches to get other feedback and opinions is also essential. All the hours, days, years finally culminate into your final paper/competition, and you give your presentation (such as the defense) or with weightlifting, make your lifts on the platform, which takes a very small amount of time in comparison. I often compare it to the lyrics in Eminem’s song, Lose Yourself, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.” Well, maybe not that dramatic for me.
Elan: You were in the headlines for choosing to wear hijab while weightlifting. Did you expect for it to be such a big deal?
KA: No. I thought there might be a few write-ups about it but definitely not the response it garnered. I was happy about it, as it definitely helped many in the public to know my story, and to get my appeal to the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) for consideration.
Elan: What does your family think of you competing?
KA: They have been supportive. My mom does not watch me lift, as she gets scared that I will get hurt. Some of my other extended family also think I might break my back. Other than that, they are happy for me and what I have been able to accomplish.
Elan: Where do you hope to take weightlifting? What’s your ultimate goal?
KA: I do not have an ultimate goal. It was the same when I started. I just did it, and kept going with it. I did not even have goals of competing, but that just happened along the way, as did everything else till now. It has also been unexpected. Going forward, I am going to go to any competition I am able to qualify for and participate in. I always want to get a higher weight total, so that will be the focus in my training — to do my best.
I also hope that in spite of how I do, it will help encourage other women to try a sport and compete. If I knew and was exposed to this when I was younger, I would have started back when I was a child.
Elan: What do you hope people will take from your story?
KA: First, is to believe in yourself. You might not always reach your goals, but you might reach part of them and learn from the process of getting to them. That will always help you when you try for something else. Most goals are not easy, so you will at least learn patience and perseverance.
Second, we are a pluralist society. We may look different but we have the same goals of unity, freedom, and social harmony. I hope people will become more accepting and tolerant of each other. I very much appreciated the show of support and encouragement from my fellow athletes. I hope other sport rule-making bodies could adopt similar inclusive uniform guidelines, diversifying participation.
Follow Kulsoom on Twitter: @liftingcovered
Photo provided by: Peter C. Tiritilli