Kulsoom Abdullah makes history

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Kulsoom Abdullah wasn't so concerned about making history.

For Abdullah, performing well at her first national weightlifting championship was far more important than the outfit she had fought so hard to wear.

The flowing hijab and black top were hard to miss, though, as Abdullah became the first woman to compete in the U.S. championships on Friday while wearing clothing that covers her legs, arms and head.

Abdullah was cleared to compete in accordance with her Muslim faith after the International Weightlifting Federation ruled two weeks ago that athletes could wear a full-body "unitard" under the customary weightlifting uniform.

IWF rules previously stated that an athlete's knees and elbows must be visible so officials can determine if a lift is correctly executed.

Abdullah, a 35-year-old from Atlanta who weighed in at 105 pounds, competed before a small crowd of roughly 100 lifters, their family members and friends in Council Bluffs, just across the river from Omaha, Neb. She finished fifth out of six competitors in her weight class.

"I guess it still hasn't really hit me. I know that there is a lot of support out there," Abdullah said. "I'm happy for the support, because that was a big moment for me."

Abdullah paired her black hijab and matching top -- both black to keep it safe, she said -- with a tight, tan long-sleeved undershirt handmade by friends back in Atlanta. She also wore long black socks.

She cleared a snatch of 41 kilograms, or just over 90 pounds, and 57 kilograms (126.7 pounds) in the clean and jerk.

Though Abdullah said she would have liked to score higher, she had nonetheless accomplished what she set out to do.

"I'm really happy that I got this experience and that there's a lot of support, and I hope that it could encourage other women and people, whether it's weightlifting or another sport, to try competition because it's fun to meet people," Abdullah said. "Just to hope that people have a good attitude about wanting to include people. I think it helps when people get along."

USA Weightlifting CEO John Duff, whose organization fought for Abdullah's cause with the IWF, told The Associated Press that Abdullah's appearance was a key milestone for the sport and a great step forward for inclusion within weightlifting.

"Weightlifters are a pretty pure bunch, in that they look at things very objectively. Can she lift, or can't she lift?" Duff said. "It doesn't really matter what people look like, what they dress like, where they come from or what they represent. It's, they are a competitor and an fellow athlete."

Abdullah's competition agreed with Duff, though they were quick to acknowledge that Abdullah's choice of clothing has drawn mixed opinions in the tight-knit community of competitive weightlifting.

Lifter Jenny Werba, who competed in the 58-kilogram class, said that many lifters are still adjusting to the new ruling given how strict the sport has been about its rules and how little things have changed over the years.

"Change is hard to adapt to, and a lot of people are a little up in arms. You know, the bobble of the elbow, that that can be covered is very controversial and I think that there's a lot of mixed emotions going around. But it's good to see everyone be able to lift," Werba said.

Added fellow 58-kilogram lifter Jessica Gallagher: "I think they made a bigger deal of it than it should have been. I don't think it makes a big difference to us at all. As long as it's tight and they can see the elbows, I don't think it matters at all."

Save for Abdullah's outfit, which stood in stark contrast to the skintight unitards wore by the rest of the field, it was hard to tell she was any different from her peers.

Her historic appearance hardly caused a stir among the small crowd, which saved its biggest cheers for lifters in the final throes of getting the bar over their shoulders cleanly.

After the battle she went through just to get to the nationals, Abdullah's main focus was simply about competing.

"I think the main goal was just to get a total and just try. I had no idea how nervous I was going to be," Abdullah said. "When I go out and lift, I think at that moment I just block it off because it's so fast. And then it was fine after that."