Husein Alireza made global headlines when he became the first Saudi rower to compete in the Olympics – but behind the scenes, adversity threatened his remarkable feat.
Husein Alireza is coming off a long weekend filming a documentary for the BBC. The first half of filming is in the UK, where his journey to becoming an Olympic rower began, and the second part is scheduled for Saudi Arabia, where his incredible feat launched a new sporting chapter for the Kingdom.
It’s hard to comprehend that the 28-year-old from Jeddah had never even tried rowing until five years ago, joining a university rowing team as a hobby while studying for his postgraduate degree at Cambridge. Nine months after he took up the sport, he came in ninth at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, followed by bronze at the Asian Indoor Rowing Championships in Bangkok in 2019. “I joined the boat club at Cambridge University just to pass the time, as a social event to meet people, a bit of fun,” he laughs. “As time went on, I got more into it and improved quite quickly – quicker than anyone else on the boat. Then the coach told me to consider doing it more seriously.” Alireza immediately had big dreams. “I figured Tokyo 2020 was three years away and there’s never been a Saudi rower in the Olympics. There’s not even a rowing federation in Saudi – there was a chance to make history if I were to qualify.”
Alireza reached out to the top rowing clubs in London for advice on how to qualify and joined forces with coach Billy Barry, who had won silver for the UK at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Barry saw the potential in Alireza, who, like his father, had previously played squash at a national level. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” recalls Alireza. “He told me there was absolutely no room in my life for anything else if I was serious about being a rower. It was difficult because I wasn’t an athlete, so to go from a very social lifestyle to 24/7 training and resting on a clean athlete’s diet was tough. Every decision you make goes towards being faster in that boat. I’ve missed weddings, funerals, birthdays… It’s quite an isolated lifestyle, there’s no space for girlfriends and I’ve lost a couple of friends too – they took it personally when I turned down invite after invite so I could go to bed early.”
The sacrifices paid off as Alireza began scoring well at competitions and Barry concluded that he was a year ahead of schedule in his training after he competed at the Asian Games. Alireza reached out to the Saudi Olympic Committee to consider him for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (his parents had funded his training.) The committee was delighted to have Alireza on board and the Saudi Rowing Federation was set up in his honor, with his father as president. But his joy was short-lived, as his mother was diagnosed with terminal bone marrow cancer. “There’s no cure for multiple myeloma; all patients eventually succumb to the disease,” explains Alireza. “My motivations for rowing just seemed generic and self-centered at this point and all I wanted to do was be with my mother. My perspective on life changed, and that glory of being the first rower didn’t matter to me at all anymore. I knew our time was limited, and I was spending so much of it away at training camps.”
His mother, though, insisted he continue rowing. “She didn’t want me to stop, she wanted me to qualify for the Olympics, so I carried on,” he recalls. “I didn’t enjoy training camps anymore because I was away so much. I wasn’t motivated anymore, but I was now rowing for her.”
More upset followed as Covid hit and talk of the Games being cancelled began circulating. Then, Alireza’s mother passed in the summer of 2020. “It was a two-year battle for her. I remember I was at training camp in California and I was hating it, because we would FaceTime and I could see her physically deteriorate, and I didn’t want to be in the camp,” Alireza recalls. “So as soon as the Olympics were postponed, I got on a flight to Germany, where she was being treated, and we could have those last few months together as a family, which I’m so grateful for. I could be in the room with her when she took her last breath.” Alireza returned to training heartbroken and unmotivated but knew that qualification for the Olympics could be the lift his family needed. As qualification approached in summer 2021, he would face two more hurdles: first, a serious stress fracture to a rib and a collapsed lung on the day of qualification. Doctors advised him to pull out but, crippled by pain, he raced and miraculously qualified. Then, nine days before flying out for the Games, still injured, he tested positive for Covid-19. “I had so little training in those last few weeks because I needed surgery. My lungs were only functioning at 70%, and then I got Covid,” he says. “I eventually tested negative days before my flight to Tokyo. It was extremely nerve-racking. I arrived like a broken man.”
Despite his challenges, Alireza became the first Saudi to row in the Olympics, placing 24th in the single sculls category after reaching the quarter finals. His hard work was also rewarded when he was given with the honor of being joint flag bearer for the Kingdom, alongside sprinter Yasmeen Al Dabbagh. “I’m super proud, and what I’m happiest about is that the Kingdom now has a new sport to invest in,” says Alireza. “I’m involved in recruiting a team of rowers and we have two elite rowers already. I’m helping with the planning of a training center in Jeddah and talking at events for prospective athletes. I also helped with the bid for Saudi Arabia to host the Asian Games in 2034.”
Alireza was also involved in a climate action campaign ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in November last year and does motivational speaking on the topic of resilience. He’s held off most commercial partnerships, though, saying he can’t be bothered to get an agent and is happiest at home reading about astronomy. But the big question is: will he compete again? “Yes, I’m aiming for Paris in 2024,” he shares. “Initially I wasn’t but seeing how many people are touched by the sport – even in a non-competitive way – has inspired me. It’s also therapeutic to be out there on the water. And I didn’t perform my best in Tokyo, I was 40 seconds slower than my usual time because of my lung capacity, so I want to do it properly.” Alireza is already a hero to many and with no doubt, has many podiums in his future.
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
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