Emirati becomes Red Bull’s first CrossFit athlete

Mahmood Shalan is only 20 but he is now working full-time as he seeks to become an international CrossFit champion sponsored by Red Bull.

Red Bull's first Emirati CrossFit athlete Mahmoud Shalan working out at the gym in Jumeirah Lakes Towers with his trainer Ian Houghton. Antonie Robertson/The National
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DUBAI // An Emirati has become the first CrossFit athlete to be sponsored by Red Bull.

Mahmood Shalan, 20, joins more than 600 sportsmen worldwide backed by the energy drink company, including Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel and Emirati motocross champion Mohammed Balooshi.

A newcomer to competitive CrossFit, Shalan competed for the first time in the CrossFit Open this year alongside more than 15,000 athletes. Despite his inexperience, he made it to the Asia Regionals in South Korea, where 42 athletes competed for a spot in the US CrossFit Games. He came 20th.

Shalan also made the top 20 in this year’s Dubai Fitness Championships, competing against top international CrossFit athletes such as Kenneth Leverich and Frederik Aegidius.

Shalan started doing CrossFit last year after seven years playing basketball.

“Nobody here was really paying attention to basketball and I thought CrossFit was smarter,” he said. “You want to get a bit of credit for all the hours you’re putting in every day.

“I knew the Dubai Fitness Championships would happen every single year after last year and it was a new sport being supported by Sheikh Majid [bin Mohammed, Chairman of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority].”

Shalan's one-year contract with Red Bull means he gets paid every two months, receives therapy at Red Bull's performance centre, the Diagnostic Training Centre in Austria, and has athlete management and funding for his training, which has just begun with Scandinavian Health and Performance in Dubai.

The sponsorship means Shalan can focus on CrossFit full-time. He will work with a coach, Ian Houghton, over the coming months for up to 12 hours a week.

One of their initial goals is to prepare for February’s CrossFit Open.

“We need to get to know the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses as quickly as possible,” Mr Houghton said. “And then evaluate his goals based upon what we feel is realistic to obtain, because he’s still young and fairly new to this level of athleticism so there needs to be long and short-term goals that will allow for sustainable, long-term progression, rather than putting him into his first competition and him peaking at that.”

The coach, who is also a practitioner of naprapathy – a mixture of chiropractics and physiotherapy – will be working on injury prevention.

“We need to make sure he has a strong foundation,” Mr Houghton said. “His long-term goals will be to represent the UAE at the CrossFit Games.”

Shalan’s success has been praised by Shaikha Al Qassimi, who made the top 10 of the Emirati edition of the Dubai Fitness Championships for women.

She said her compatriot being given such a prestigious sponsorship would encourage the many young Emirati athletes who wanted to make a career out of sport, not least in CrossFit, which has soared in popularity among men and women.

“Mahmood is one of the most genuine and pure people I have ever met in my life,” Al Qassimi said. “He’s very headstrong on his training and fitness goals.

“He’s extremely dedicated and is an inspiration to many young athletes out there.”

Shalan said he was under some pressure now to show his value to his sponsors.

“It feels great to be the first Red Bull CrossFit athlete but I have to back it up,” he said.

“We [Emirati athletes] will be competing with the guys abroad soon though. It will take time.

“The sport is young here but the reality is that I’m going to compete against the guys who came here to compete this year.”

Alberto Chahoud, Red Bull’s regional communications manager, said he expected great things of Shalan’s future.

“With a clear determination and a disciplined, sporty spirit, we are confident Mahmood will establish himself as one of the best CrossFit athletes in the region, and hopefully around the world.

“We are committed to remain by his side.”

Shalan will compete in the finals of the Emirati men’s edition of the Dubai Fitness Championships at the city’s Aviation Club on Friday.

“It’s going to be tough but I feel confident,” he said.