If you were to take one quick glance at the UK’s fittest man, Joshua Al-chamaa, it may come as a surprise that he pinpoints performing a contemporary dance to Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ as the turning point in his life.

“I had the stereotypical growing up in Hackney young boy attitude – I had my reservations about contemporary dance," he said.

"I was so embarrassed. I was mortified. Then everyone started jumping up. All these people that bullied me in school jumping up and clapping and cheering. What the hell was going on?”

Al-chamaa, now living in Los Angeles, flashes a smile underneath a moustache that reflects his jovial energy.

The 31-year-old was part of the Invictus team crowned ‘Fittest on Earth’ at the CrossFit Games and his candid humility permeates through our Zoom call as he remembers his childhood in Hackney – a time littered with as much turmoil as joy.

“I did go through some bullying and it was pretty serious. I looked different. Maybe sounded different. I wasn't particularly good at sports,” adds Al-chamaa of a reality hidden by the now older, confident athlete.

“I couldn’t defend myself. [Not just] physically but, verbally. I wasn't a very confident child and other children liked to prey on that. I got into fitness because I was tired of getting beat up.”

Al-chamaa found exercise and dancing a way out of the scrutiny he faced as a boy. He credits his fitness journey for allowing him to accept not just his own differences, but also others in the community.

“That's the whole point of growing up in London,” he says. “You grow up around so many different ethnicities and backgrounds. There's something special and unique about growing up in London and, even more so, Hackney alongside so many different people.”

Al-chamaa’s own family acts as a microcosm for the diversity of the community he grew up in.

“I have four older brothers who have a different father but my Mum wanted me to have the same surname as them," he says proudly.

"My biological father is not from Syria, but I love my surname and the fact I had all these different influences - I had a father of colour, I had brothers that were Arabs, I had friends that were Turkish, friends that were Christian and Muslim.”

Despite the various influences dominating his life, Al-chamaa yearns for the simplicity of growing up in Hackney in the 90s.

“Life was simple. I was wearing my brothers’ hand-me-down clothes, we were out playing on the streets and cycling to Clissold Park. I didn’t have my first phone until I was 14,” he adds.

Yet, that Sony Ericsson phone would set Al-chamaa on the path to the man he is today. As if in a Justin Timberlake music video, Al-chamaa would film himself breakdancing alone in his room – no one saw it, they couldn’t.

At least until Al-chamaa was on television.

“I just thought 'sod it' and sent a video into Nickelodeon as a bit of a joke. Then a bunch of people from school saw me popping and locking on this Nickelodeon advert. I was so embarrassed. I was mortified.”

Encouraged by support from friends, he would join a street dance group before a teacher suggested he try contemporary dancing.

“I tried to shy away and then she presented me the opportunity of dancing with two girls, which ultimately changed my opinion. I then performed ‘Jolene’ in front of the whole school.”

Al-chamaa fell in love with dance and would perform at the BRIT awards aged just 16. Yet, he quickly lost interest in the art and dropped out of dance college, to his father’s disapproval.

“I told my father and, I don't know if he would've held his word on this, but he said, ‘Fine, but find a job or you can't live in this house.’ Wait, what?”

Fuelled by pure self-determination, Al-chamaa went down Oxford Street and handed his CV into every store, every week for a month. Eventually, Topman grew sick of the teenager’s persistence and found him a job.

From Topman, Al-chamaa’s interest in fashion would grow and he went on to work for Tom Ford and Burberry – a fact the CrossFit champion finds amusing that I had managed to find.

“You’ve done your research!” he laughs before returning to a thoughtful tone.

“I like fashion. I like fancy things. That's changed now, of course, but back then, you know, I enjoyed being in those environments. I wanted to feel like I had some importance. I chased these jobs other people maybe thought were out of reach of people like me.”

During his time at Burberry, Al-chamaa dressed rapper Tinie Tempah, actor Michael Caine and worked with singer Harry Styles. Yet, and despite his comfortable salary, he could not find himself.

“I knew I wanted to reach a point where I was accepted for being good at something, even though I ultimately didn't know what I was good at,” he says. “But I knew that I didn't want to just be serving people. I wanted to have more purpose than that.”

Once again, Al-chamaa found himself quitting a career path in search of himself and, although he didn’t realise it at the time, a new community like the one he grew up in.

“I wanted to try something really hard. I wanted to challenge myself. I started searching for the hardest challenge and then CrossFit came up. ‘Maybe, I’ll try this out,’ I thought.”

Joining a CrossFit gym was like entering a lion’s den.

“It was the weirdest experience in my life. Everyone in there working out, ripping their shirts off and going crazy. It was carnage. They're animals. But I think a week later, I ripped my shirt off and went nuts.”

After years of searching, Al-chamaa found himself in CrossFit and found the community to replicate the one he cherished growing up in Hackney.

This search would take him across the Atlantic to America where he would meet his wife, Amber, who would inspire him to become a champion at the CrossFit Games.

“I remember turning to my wife [after failing to qualify for the games in 2021] and saying 'maybe it's not for me'. She said ‘No, do one more year’. The next year, I qualified for the games. The year after, I won the games. Had she not been there I would've probably turned away from this like I turned away from everything else.”

Al-chamaa says lovingly, but honestly: “There is not one thing I've achieved that I would've achieved had I not met my wife. She's done so much for me in terms of just helped me get my mind, training, finances and nutrition right.”

Last month, the couple had their first child and Al-chamaa explains how, despite living in Los Angeles, he hopes he can instil the lessons and values he learned in Hackney.

Al-chamaa may well be a new father, but he has also taken on the responsibility of becoming the face of the UK’s CrossFit scene.

He laughs as we find ourselves talking again about the idea of community, but Al-chamaa believes he has finally found the purpose his younger self was searching for.

“I appreciate it's still a relatively new sport, but it's growing. We live in a time where less people are helping others, taking care of others. People are too quick to judge and not open enough to support.

“If I can grow that welcoming community within the world of CrossFit, even if it’s just one or if it’s 100, then I’d have done my small part in the world.”