Emirati Shahad Budebs hopes seeing more women in full body or hijab sports gear will encourage other Arab athletes to compete in the gruelling CrossFit games.
The UAE national was part of the first Arab team to make it to the world CrossFit games in Madison, Wisconsin, this week.
Team Dubai competed against 40 of the world's top teams in a fiercely competitive event.
The athletes hope their experiences will open doors for others to take on the challenge to be counted among the fittest in the world.
“It was a great experience competing against the toughest athletes and we learnt a lot about how we need to prepare,” said Ms Budebs, the UAE national CrossFit champion who made it to the individual event in Madison, the US, in 2019.
She stood out as the only woman in a headscarf, long-sleeved shirt and full-length leggings in a sea of bikinis, shorts and tank tops.
Ms Budebs hopes the images will inspire young women to join the ranks of Muslim female athletes competing professionally while wearing modest sports gear.
“I was the only one wearing hijab. This is my identity,” she told The National from Madison.
“I’m saying I’m proud to be here. I want to tell other women, if you are only one wearing the hijab, don’t be afraid to compete against the strongest in the world.”
She received tremendous support online with messages from across the world and a shout out from the organisers who mentioned her on Twitter.
“People said they were proud and happy to see me competing,” she said. “They were very supportive.”
The teams were given a series of challenges that covered rope climbs, distance swims, lifting weights, pushing weights over an extended stretch, running and completing obstacle courses.
Ms Budebs plans to work on improving her swimming technique while wearing a hijab swimsuit.
“It’s still baby steps for us. It's not easy to get here so I want to train harder and come back stronger next year,” she said.
“Swimming is my weakness, it’s challenging because I have only been swimming for the last two years.
“Wearing the full swim suit made me slow and heavier. So I need to understand how to improve my skills.”
There have been several women who have competed in the Olympics and other international games in the hijab.
Athletes aim to broaden the conversation so it becomes natural for young girls to take up high-intensity sports.
Team Dubai placed 35th among the world’s top 40 teams and is determined to return better prepared.
The team included Emiratis Bader Al Noori, Mahmood Shalan and Irish resident Kat Fearon. Ms Fearon said others would follow the example Ms Budebs had set.
“It is so inspiring for women to see Shahad competing in her hijab among the best athletes in the world, it gives women the motivation and courage to believe they can too,” she said.
Bader Al Noori, a first lieutenant with the Dubai Police and team captain, said he hoped more women would take up the sport.
The rules stipulate a team comprises two women and two men. There have also been expatriate teams with podium finishes at the CrossFit games.
“Shahad has been a big inspiration to many women I’m really hoping we find more Arab women athletes,” he said.
“My goal was to open the doors for UAE nationals. I want a team competing every year from UAE. We need to get the next generation in the sport.”
Lt Al Noori said they would need coaches specifically to hone running and swimming skills.
“We need more training outside the gym,” he said.
“The competition was an eye opener and I’m sure after this you will find more Arab teams wanting to compete.”
Athletes said it was crucial for the young to have Arab female sports role models growing up.
Tackling antiquated notions that sport makes women "too muscular and bulky" and encouraging girls to be comfortable wearing the hijab in open competitions was also important.
“We have women who are dedicated to sport but some don’t like to train with the hijab,” Lt Al Noori said
“It’s hard in our culture to accept women who are physically strong. They see a girl with muscles and think ‘Why is she like that'.
“People need to be educated. It should start with schools emphasising more on all sports like football and basketball. The only way to change this is through education.”