When he arrived in Tokyo on May 1, 2021, he felt fine – ready to compete in the race of his life, to determine whether he was coming back to Tokyo for the Olympics in July. And since his times in the single sculls were good to enough qualify, he felt he had a shot to do well at this Asia and Oceania rowing qualifier, to become the first rower from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympics.
But on May 2, he felt a slight pain. “It’s a sore ab,” thought Husein Alireza, so not a worry. But then it was May 5, time to race, and Alireza was in significant pain. The doctor there told him he had a stress fracture of the rib, and he probably shouldn’t race. To Alireza, there was no question – he raced.
And then Husein went back to the UK, where scans revealed his left lung had collapsed during the race and needed to have surgery, in fact fairly invasive lung surgery in early June, with painful post-op recovery. Then began the negotiation with the doctor, who told him he had to rest for two months. Not being able to train for two months would mean no trip to Tokyo, so doctor and patient got it down to 2 weeks.
Husein’s dream to compete in Tokyo was still alive.
As for the question of qualification, he had to wait. Olympic qualification in rowing is a complex process predominantly dependent on the qualifier results, as well as on the boat selection of other nations. The process took about two weeks. Two nail-biting weeks.
Husein’s coach Bill Barry is a veteran rowing coach, a member of the Great Britain coxless four rowing team that took silver at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Qualification for Tokyo 2020 would mean Barry would be the first person ever to attend the Olympics in the same city as an athlete and a coach.
Alireza would be the first Olympic rower in his nation – a critical step to increasing the popularity of rowing in not only Saudi Arabia, but across the Middle East where rowing is an unknown sport. After all, the Arabian Desert, 2.3 million square miles of sand, covers almost the entirety of Saudi Arabia. There is plenty of space to play football, but not to row.
So, when the final rankings were confirmed and the phone call came in late May that Alireza had qualified and was going to the Olympics, he realized he was no longer in injury recovery mode, but in training mode.
Every effort had to be made so that he could perform his best at the Olympics. But with the injury, the surgery and the reduced lung capacity, Husein realized that he wouldn’t be able to do his best. He could, however, overcome the challenges and represent, not just to bring meaning to his seemingly endless and exhaustive training, but also to his family and his country.
“Competing at the Olympics would be historic for my country while also honoring my family who’ve done so much for me,” Alireza told me. “It means the world. There is no greater honor than to represent your country on the biggest spectacle of all. It’s a moment I wish I could’ve shared with my late mother, Salma.”
“It’s very exciting being at the forefront of a new sport in the Kingdom,” he continued. “When I went back home last year, we organized an indoor rowing championship. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of youngsters in both genders asking so many questions and showing interest.”
As if to emphasize the impact Husein is having, he recently learned he would be the flag bearer for Team Saudi Arabia during the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics.
Alireza realizes he has an opportunity to grow a sport not just in Saudi but in the Middle East Region. He knows he must raise funds, which means he has to educate people in the Saudi Olympic Committee and other relevant agencies. The funds are needed firstly to create a place where people can train in Saudi Arabia.
Fortunately, the Saudi Rowing Federation found a narrow strip of water located in a housing development in the northern part of the city Jeddah and is getting approval for its use as a rowing facility. “It’s close to the city, it is a perfect 2k rowing course, and that’s where the center of Saudi rowing will be.”
But first things first. Alireza has to get ready for the Olympics.
Barry said, “you need to understand that rowing is the toughest of all sports. It requires the most training to get aerobic conditioning and strength. People on the rowing team train 11 months of the year, 3 times a day, at least 4 days a week. A typical day might be sculling 16k in a boat, 16k on the rowing machine, one and half hours on weights. That’s a typical day. Scientifically, rowers breathe more oxygen in one minute than in any other sport.”
Alireza broke down how much effort went into that one race – a 2-kilometer sprint which takes a little over 7 minutes. “I rowed 30,000 kilometers,” said Alireza. “Eight hours of training went into every one second of my qualification race, which equals 15 kilometers for every 1 meter. In other words, the race was rehearsed 15,000 times.”
And when you row in a single scull for a country that has no rowing tradition, it is not just painful, it’s lonely, and Alireza wants to make sure that future generations of Saudi rowers feel strength in numbers.
“When I travel to an international race,” he told me. “In front of me I can see the Thai team, or the Japan team, having a great time together. Team spirit and camaraderie is a powerful thing, while I do my warm ups alone in silence envisioning coming back with a Saudi team one day.”
Barry, who is making history himself by being one of the very few to be credentialed for the two Olympics in the same host city (1964 and 2020), understands the importance of Husein Alireza.
“Husein is putting rowing on the map in Saudi Arabia.”