Abirami Shanmugaratnam is an elite athlete who plays sports like badminton, rugby, cross-country, ice-hockey, netball, soccer, track & field and flag football and is currently a Chiropractic student. She is also a personal trainer & coach, starting a business called Skyhigh Performance which she started as a result from being turned from opportunities for being "too overqualified" or "not having enough experience". She is looking to expand her influence through her role as a educator/mentor especially to Tamil youth in athletics so they won't be faced with as many barriers to performance as she was.
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You were and still are quite the athlete (sports including badminton, rugby, cross-country, ice-hockey, netball, soccer, track & field and flag football) - what was your favourite sport to participate in and why?
My favourite sport to participate in currently is flag football recreationally. This is a sport where I am able to excel and push my sprinting capabilities, along with my soccer footwork, my hand eye coordination nurtured through football along with the combined technical elements of rugby (although I do miss the feeling of tackling and contact sport). Flag football is a great sport to transition into post varsity which really requires the athletic capacity of an all around athlete.
Why are you so passionate about strength training as a personal trainer, especially as a female? Common misconception around strength training specifically for women, is that they should minimize this and focus on cardio - how do you address this?
As a Tamil women of colour growing up with little to no guidance in sports, I faced a lot of challenges along the way, for example a lack of resources. I only was formally introduced to weight lifting and Olympic lifting in university where I was already behind in comparison to other athletes who were provided opportunities and resources to build their strength windows. Being a student to the game and weight room helped me build my repertoire and knowledge. As a result I started to see how this elevated my performance on the track and in sport.
A very common misconception around strength training for women is the idea of “getting too big” or “looking too masculine”, and rather focus on just cardio which is a very negative mindset. As a sprinter, I use my experience to educate my clients, friends and family that this is an ideology that limits us from true holistic health. I feel from former client experiences, the fear of the unknown and societal standards along with main stream fitness culture, that strength training gets a bad reputation as “weight loss” is the standard that is sold. However, this has been changing over the last couple years as women in sport is gaining momentum and as more women start to tap in performance over aesthetics or “weight loss” goals.
You’re currently a personal trainer, coach and chiropractic student. How do you view all these things fitting together or will you be focusing on just one of these moving forward?
I take pride in all of these roles and as I progressed in my professional career, I started to see all of these roles becoming interconnected as I searched for answers in my journey on how I could better serve my clients and community at large. I’d like to think each role as a thinking hat I would put on which not only offers a unique perspective when problem solving, but also in having a range of tools which helps me to be a more critical thinker whether that is in the health & wellness or fitness industry.
Have you ever felt like you got treated differently as a female as a trainer or coach, especially when you work with athletes? If so, how did you address those situations?
There have been several instances where the colour of my skin and gender identity played a role especially in a male dominated industry. However, I strongly stand by the idea that knowledge is not gender-based nor does it discriminate, which is why I have been able to excel in this field and given opportunities to work with professional athletes and network with world-renown coaches. Some of the first athletes I worked with were male varsity athletes, who respected the very technical skillset I brought to the field as a coach and they saw this through my ability to analyze, and coach them to improved performances. Having the capacity to showcase/demonstrate exercises and drills were definitely an asset, but more importantly listening to and understanding my athletes played a huge role to being accepted by athletes. I have been fortunate enough to work with respectful and hardworking athletes early on in my career from a personal training and coaching perspective.
What do your family think about the work you do as a coach and personal trainer? (as being a chiro is more of a known/acceptable career choice in Tamil households)
I can safely say my family is proud of the work I do as a coach and personal trainer with all the people and community I serve whereas early on this was questionable because it was a foreign career path. They have come to realize that coaching and personal training can be a career as I can overhear my parents proudly tell their coworkers, family and friends “my daughter is a coach who works with professional athletes”. It is very true that being a chiropractor comes with the prestigious ‘doctor’ title which definitely is an added bonus; however, they have come to understand the work I do as a trainer and coach is just as important.
How do you find the learning process (being a chiropractor student) during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There are definitely benefits to online learning such as saving money and time from the commute to school, watching lectures at 2x speed which gives me some free time to squeeze in a mid-day workout + run and being able to enjoy fresh homemade curry & rice in between classes! However, as technologically forward virtual schooling may be, taking 14 courses at once online which is over 40 hours of school and all of life being online from school to work with virtual coaching has made all this screen time along with sitting major stressors. However, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to attend practical classes in person where I am able to build the practical skills to help me excel as a chiropractor as well as safely connect with my peers and mentors for support.
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What has the impact of social media been on your work?
I officially branded my small business Skyhigh Performance in 2016 to share my knowledge for health and strength education with the larger community after being turned down from opportunities for being “too overqualified” or “not having enough experience”. I was told this early on in my career which left me feeling like there was no space for someone that looked like me in the industry. It was probably one of the best decisions I had made from lack of opportunity, failure, and passion, as I felt I needed to take up space in a male dominated industry. Since then, I have been able to network and connect with a larger target audience from beginners to elite athletes. Through my content and drive for learning, I have been able to connect with professional athletes and coaches who engage with my content which has led me to opportunities. Social media allows me to now connect with, inspire and be inspired by other women like me who continue to take up space in this industry and I do believe it is here to stay.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’ve learned the most from?
I would say that being selective of the environments you choose to place yourself in has a huge impact on your focus and direction. Coming out of varsity athletics, I was in a search of finding a recreational space where I would fit in, but it was a challenge as I started to see how sporting spaces became a social grounds for social exclusion and status. I am highly critical of sporting environments having negative experiences as a youth athlete early on in my community. Fortunately, I learned to find my voice in a system that is not designed fairly and learned to advocate for others as a leader whereas I once took on a more passive approach. In my Tamil community, we often revere sports leaders as the one who has the loudest voice and can argue the loudest (have the most influential status aka who you know to be able to maneuver the system). However, certain experiences have taught me that being true to yourself, not following the crowd and most importantly having the desire to help someone feel included especially in developmental sporting spaces is leadership.
What do you like to do for fun outside of work?
The obvious hobby would be playing sports; I love to try new sports and challenge my athleticism. I am also an avid hiker and love traveling, although the pandemic has put a pause on my extensive planning. Surprisingly, the pandemic has turned me into a plant collector; cool fact – I have over 80 indoor plants!
What is your superhero name “Skyhigh”?
My brand name Skyhigh first originated in Grade 3, when I grew very fond of the Jordan brand, and one day wanted to create my own shoe line as I drew up sketches in my art book. I shared some of my passions with my friends and soon, it turned into a nickname, which I grew fond of – especially after I would beat the boys at recess as I bet them everything from Pokemon cards, to Dunkaroos. I guess, if I had a superpower, you could say it was speed.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I want to be remembered not just for my accomplishments or athleticism, but rather the lives I am able to positively impact and inspire to push past societal barriers. One of the reasons I take a lot of passion in coaching is to because I see myself as an educator/mentor and I hope to continue to provide resources and access to coaching at the grassroots level especially to Tamil youth in athletics so they won’t be faced with as many barriers to performance as I was. I know how much athletics and competing serves as an outlet, so I hope I am able to give this opportunity back to the greater community.
Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?
To be honest, there were not many global Tamil leaders I can say that I was influenced by in pursing my field in athletics and sports, but I did draw inspiration and wisdom from ancient philosophers such as Bharathiyar and Thiruvalluvar, thanks to my grandmother who instilled Tamil culture from a young age. I also grew a lot of strength and inspiration from the countless Tamil female freedom fighters who broke a lot of gender stereotypes and truly sacrificed their lives early on during Tamil civil war to allow us to live and pursue a life of opportunity.
I have a lot of non-tamil influential idols that I have studied as a student to the sport. One of my major influences is Michael Jordan whose career I studied growing up from the way he carried himself in sport and media to his entrepreneurial skills. Instead of watching track and field highlights, meditating or relaxing as my coaches has prescribed, I would watch basketball highlights and MJ dunks prior to races, tests, exams. I used his career and domination in sport as motivation to fuel my light and performance. Watching an athlete like Michael Jordan who completely owned the court, allowed me to strive for a limitless mindset.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Abi looking back?
Looking back, I would tell my younger self to, breathe more, and read more books as time is of essence as you get older.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho is one of my most favourite books as I found it during a time when I was doubting my journey in life and it metaphorically provided me with a new found sense of wisdom and inspiration to be able to step back and especially look at my professional life from another lens.
Ken Follet’s “The Pillars of the Earth” is historical fiction book that was gifted to me by a client which I thoroughly loved as a history enthusiast and traveller. I love a good book that can paint a vivid picture that can take me time traveling throughout history. Sometimes the most magnificent structures that we admire are built by humble and simple beings. Ken Follet was able to beautifully capture the lives, triumphs and failures of ordinary beings and transform it into extraordinary tales. I would quite often read this book on subways rides to work downtown and was so lost in the 12th century, I would quite often miss my subway station in the 21st century – that’s how of an escape it was for me.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Seeking out several mentorship opportunities has been a great way for me to network, expand my skillset and learn. The belief that you can take and give back something from every experience is one that has truly transformed my way of thinking both personally and professionally. More importantly, finding ways to be open to working with a range of athletes and clientele has allowed me to grow beyond a “niche market” as popularized across several industries. Having the capacity to work with a range of individuals has only allowed me to improve and grow as a professional.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would invest this money back into grassroots levels organizations and mentorship programs in underprivileged communities as well as into athletic scholarships especially with lack of funding in Canada. If I can impact even one youth to pursue athletics as a career and inspire them to give back to their community, this is how I would create a ripple in the system.
How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and professionally?
The Toronto Tamil community from a young age has given me a platform to perform whether that be on an all-boys Tamil soccer team or at Tamil community track and netball meets. The community has time and time again highlighted my accomplishments and showcased my skills which was encouraging, and uplifted my confidence early on. However, at the same time, the community has motivated me to expand out of the Toronto Tamil bubble and compete against the best not just in the province, but in the country as an athlete due to lack of resources within the community itself. This community granted me my first opportunity to develop as a coach as young as 13, despite taking away my playing privileges which pushed me to learn the craft of coaching very well from a young age, really sharpening my observational and communication skills. It is because I was pushed out of spaces because there was no space for me in the community to compete and excel, that it drove me to explore different avenues where my passion and drive to learn motivated me especially when I did not have much guidance and support. As a result, this allowed me to develop into the professional I am today. If the Toronto Tamil community taught me anything, it was the message of resistance, overcoming the struggle in finding my identity as a first-generation Tamil which allowed me to hurdle over societal barriers and norms.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
I have too many favourites from tamil cuisine, but idli and sambaar is my all time favourite with a close tie for kothu roti.
Favourite dessert is vattalappam!!!
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
Avvai Shanmughi & Padiayappa.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Tamil culture is a form of expression and my identity. It has influenced and shaped my journey as a competitive varsity athlete, coach, trainer and individual. I see Tamil culture as a rich and triumphant form of art, philosophy, movement and expression that shapes an entire community. I am proud to have grown up in the midst of it all. Everything from Carnatic music to Bharatanatyam to Tamil classes have played a major role in my growth personally and professionally. My identity and story is one that is tied to resistance and perseverance, which is closely tied to the journey of my family and ancestors that had to fight for opportunity and freedom in foreign lands. I am rooted in Tamil culture.
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