Abeer Al Khaja also aims to spread the word about Emirati sportswomen
Portrait of a Nation: Emirati coach wants to make fitness a lifestyle choice for all women
From lifting weights to running in a pack, Abeer Al Khaja has learnt to derive strength from numbers.
The 31-year-old Emirati is a CrossFit level 2 trainer and the co-founder of a weekly running club. Her goal is to grow a community of strong women and spread her message of fitness, pushing people to look beyond their limitations.
“Girls want to run outdoors but never had a chance without the hijab and in a private facility. Running together makes us feel good. The girls love it and it’s like we have created a community,” she says.
She helped start Ana Gow Running Club — which means ‘I am strong’ in the Emirati dialect — three years ago in a bid to encourage women to run without feeling judged or embarrassed. The inclusive club has since grown to some 70 members; some take part in the marathon, others compete in other long distance races but there are also those who simply seek a private place to run comfortably.
“The point of Ana Gow Running is that it is for non-runners. Women who are not fit or women who feel self-conscious to go into the gym have begun getting out of their house. It is not intimidating to join us because not all of us are good runners so this feels safe and doable.”
The women meet every Tuesday for the free classes at Dubai Ladies Club. Most of its members are Emirati but some expatriates have joined too.
Ms Al Khaja also has a weightlifting certification and teaches CrossFit at Dubai’s Metalize gym.
To follow her passion, she gave up a secure job in the airline industry last year.
She worked for Emirates for seven years as a revenue optimising officer and then manager where she analysed and forecasted pricing and inventory. After work she would coach women in the sprawling gym located at the Ras Al Khor industrial area.
“I thought long and hard and it was a very difficult decision to leave Emirates because I loved my team and I learnt so much. But everyone was supportive and gave me the strength to move on to what I truly love,” she says.
But to remain focused without a full time job Ms Al Khaja sets herself specific targets.
“This is not like a KPI I would need in a company but my personal goal to make fitness a lifestyle for girls. That is the message I want to spread.
“I want to get the word out to companies and brands that sponsor young athletes. I want to let them know that we have Emirati athletes training daily and their sole purpose is to make this country proud.
“I would love to have sports and health related companies get involved with these athletes to create sponsorship programmes for these girls.”
To this end she created a database of Emirati and GCC sportspeople on Instagram @abeermk.
Ms Al Khaja believes organising events catering to women will pull in more enthusiasts.
During her CrossFit classes, she tailors her workouts depending on her predominantly Emirati clientele and says the atmosphere is always one of encouragement and celebration.
“The last person who finishes the workout is the one gets the most cheers so the women like to come back because they are part of a group. Some do not sign up for Cross fit but just want to get fit. We offer solutions based on their requirements.
“I don’t discourage anyone. We may have a lady who is not comfortable lifting barbells or a girl who may like boxing so I motivate them differently.”
Ms Al Khaja has also coached pregnant women as part of her goal to get more expectant mothers to the gym.
“This is something I want to continue to highlight so more women are aware that pregnant women don’t need to stop training. Of course we scale down workouts and constantly supervise them.
“When girls hear about us working out in the gym or about us running either through social media or read about it in The National they will be encouraged to come try it out. It is our responsibility to reach them.”
She has big dreams for the women athletes she has got to know well.
Her plan is to encourage sports women to continue training while looking for sponsorship and funding.
“I want to achieve some of this within this year. But for me, it does not end this year, this will be my constant effort. This is my passion. I’m going to make sure that people hear of Emirati women athletes even if it takes me five to 10 years to make this happen.”