x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE CrossFit team heading to Seoul

Three Emirati athletes are on a team of seven from the UAE heading to Seoul, South Korea to take on the fittest men in Asia at the CrossFit Games Regionals.

Mahmood Khalil Al Shalan trains at Jumeirah Open Beach. Antonie Robertson / The National
Mahmood Khalil Al Shalan trains at Jumeirah Open Beach. Antonie Robertson / The National

Nothing gets between Emirati Saud Saif Al Shamsi and his sporting ambitions: not a broken back nor appendix surgery.

The 22-year-old is one of three Emirati athletes making up a group of individuals heading this week to Seoul, South Korea, to take on the fittest men and women in Asia at the CrossFit Games Regionals event. Two other contingents are heading from Dubai to compete as teams at the event.

Having fought against the odds to return to strength after a motorcycle accident in 2006 left him in a coma and facing life-threatening injuries, Al Shamsi qualified for the second round of this year's highly competitive three-stage Games only to find himself back in hospital - this time requiring surgery to remove his appendix.

"I am just about recovered, not fully, but I can go," he says. "I can't lift more than 100kg as I've been warned it could cause a hernia, so I don't expect to do very well, but I don't want to miss the opportunity to be there."

Billed as a global competition to find "the fittest on Earth", the 2013 CrossFit Games promises to be a gruelling and highly competitive physical contest. More than 2,100 competitors across Asia participated in the first round, the Opens, which took place during March this year. Over five weeks, they performed five workouts in the presence of CrossFit-affiliated judges at gyms across the region: the top 48 individual male and female athletes in Asia qualifying for the second stage - Regionals, happening from Friday to Monday.

In the UAE, 80 athletes registered for this year's Opens and only seven of them - six men and one woman - have made it through to South Korea. Among those seven are Al Shamsi, Mahmood Khalil Al Shalan, 20, and Ali Bin Zayed, 19, all from Dubai and all supported by Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the chairman of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

Competition at the next level will be fierce: only one male and one female from Asia can qualify for the world championships, to be held in the United States later this summer. At stake, a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) purse and, perhaps more importantly, the highly coveted title of "Fittest on Earth".

Whatever the result, Al Shamsi hopes that his participation in the Regionals will inspire more Emiratis to take up a sport he credits with changing his life.

"We have around 100 members at Dunes and almost all are Emirati. I believe I'm helping introduce the sport to the community - that's why I opened the box [gym]. It's something I believe is important."

Al Shalan, 20, from Dubai, began CrossFit just eight months ago.

"I just joined because my friends were," he says, laughing. "I didn't think it would [end] with me going to the regional tournament." A semi-professional basketball player in the UAE until he discovered CrossFit and The Burn Room gym in September last year, Al Shalan has been working tirelessly to build the skills required of him at the next stage of the contest.

"A month ago I couldn't do pistol squats [one-legged squats] and could barely do an overhead squat - both of which are involved in the workouts at Seoul - so for me it has been about working on my strength," he says.

While CrossFit remains a fledgling sport in this region, its popularity has more than doubled in the past year: 184 individuals and five teams applied to the Games' Opens this year from the UAE, compared to 77 individuals and one team last year.

The other UAE-based athletes to qualify for the second stage of the contest are expatriates Candice Howe, Marcus Smith, Matt Jones and the Abu Dhabi-based teacher Justin Ahrens, 25, from Oregon.

As there is no CrossFit box in Abu Dhabi as yet, Ahrens has been travelling to Dubai from the capital daily after work to train himself at The Burn Room. He also coaches Al Shalan and a team of eight other talented athletes competing in the CrossFit Games' Team event.

A qualified CrossFit coach who has been practising the fast-growing sport for three years, Ahrens - who placed 11th in the region this year - believes Al Shalan has been blessed with natural talent and ability and will only get stronger with experience.

"I'm proud of them all," he says. "They have all come a long way. They are stressed and a bit nervous but they're also very new to CrossFit: most of them have been doing it for less than a year."

Ahrens finished 14th in Asia at last year's Opens stage but chose not to make the journey to Regionals, fearing his game was not well-rounded enough to compete at the next level. This year, he feels differently.

"As soon as Regionals were over last year, I committed everything to getting stronger," he says. "I'm not scared to go, I do not fear anything. I've made my game so well-rounded that I've done what CrossFit asks of you - to get fit for the unknown."


To their limits of endurance

For months now, at least once a day, every day, eight UAE-based expatriates have been pushing themselves to the limits at a Dubai gym.

They make up one of just two mixed-gender teams from the UAE that have qualified for the 2013 CrossFit Games Regionals team event. A second team of six will represent Reebok CrossFit LifeSpark, also of Dubai.With competition fierce – there are 21 Asian teams competing for the coveted championship place – both teams have been training around the clock in an effort to master the skills required of them.

Among the most terrifying are muscle-ups, a challenging movement that requires athletes to perform both a pull-up and then a dip on a set of gymnastic rings. “I’m covered in bruises,” says Laura Matthews, 29, a British personal trainer who is one of four women in The Burn Room team travelling to Seoul. “I’m training so hard every day, at least five times a week, because I’m paranoid about the muscle-ups. We don’t want to let each other down.”Candice Howe, 28, came second at the Regionals last year.

The founder of CrossFit LifeSpark, the coach of their mixed team and the only woman in the UAE travelling to Seoul for the Regionals individual event, she is amazed at the growth of the sport here.“I remember back in 2011 when seven people in Dubai did the Open – only three went to Regionals,” she says. “Things have progressed so quickly.”

What is CrossFit?

A tough strength and conditioning programme that is, by its own definition, broad and inclusive, and includes a range of plyometric, gymnastic, aerobic, body weight and Olympic weightlifting movements: from box jumps to sprinting, kettlebell swings to rowing. Combinations of such movements form “Workouts of the Day” (or WODs), which rarely last more than 30 minutes, are usually intense and aim to keep exercise varied and promote well-rounded fitness.

What are the CrossFit Games?

Started in 2007, the CrossFit Games are a three-stage global competition intended to identify the fittest athletes on the planet. Renowned for being a tough test of fitness, it is made up of a range of functional movements which test strength and speed. The first stage of the event is the Open, a five-week, worldwide, inclusive event in which athletes complete five workouts and post their results (monitored by CrossFit affiliated gyms, also called boxes). The top-performing athletes from the Open from each of the 17 regions progress to the Regionals, a three-day live event. The event culminates in the Reebok CrossFit Games between July 26 and 28 in California – where the top 100 performing athletes (50 men and 50 women) battle it out for the title of Fittest on Earth and a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) purse.


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