JEDDAH: Early morning training, a strict dietary regimen and long hours in the gym make rowing one of the most demanding sports in the world.
But for Saudi rower Husein Alireza, the satisfaction of seeing the Kingdom’s flag over the medals podium makes the intense effort worthwhile.
After months spent pushing himself to the limit, Alireza burst on to the international scene with a third-place finish at the 2019 Asian indoor titles in Bangkok, a medal-winning result that also put Saudi rowing on the world map.
“I was so proud to carry the Saudi flag that day and it’s a feeling that I want to experience many times again in the future,” he told Arab News while visiting Riyadh for an awards ceremony honoring international medal-winning athletes from the Kingdom.
“There is no greater honor for an athlete than to represent his country and no better feeling than to raise his country’s flag over the medals podium.”
Not content with charting his own competitive rowing career, the Saudi rower is also working to develop the sport in the Kingdom.
“Work is already underway to develop a training and competition facility in Jeddah and Riyadh. We want to have rowing as a sport in the upcoming inaugural Saudi Games multi-sport competition, and also to host inaugural outdoor and indoor national rowing championships this year,” he said.
“I look forward to this dream becoming a reality. This would be a turning point in the growth of rowing as a major sport not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the region.”
The Kingdom’s extensive coastline and suitable weather year-round make it an ideal location for the sport, he added.
Alireza began rowing competitively while studying for a master’s degree at Cambridge University.
“Rowing was a great way to meet people and take my mind off studies. The strict training taught me the importance of self-discipline and teamwork to achieve goals. The head coach was impressed by how quickly I improved and encouraged me to take the sport up professionally,” he said.
Alireza is now based in London, which he describes as “the rowing capital of the world.”
“It’s important I put myself in a competitive environment to make the most of my time training,” he said.
“I’m working diligently to reach my potential as a rower, and make my family and country proud. I feel I have already made a mark in the sport by being the first Saudi to win a medal in a major rowing competition.
“I would like to leave a proud legacy for Saudi rowers and remain involved in the development and growth of the sport in the Kingdom,” he said.
“At this point I’m proud to say that Saudi Arabia can be recognized as being competitive in the sport.”
Along with the bronze medal at the 2019 Asian indoor titles, Alireza’s achievements include gold in Molesey Regatta in London, a first in the B final of the 2019 Asian Rowing Championships in South Korea, and a finalist spot in the 2019 Asia Cup in Thailand.
“My performance at each competition I’ve entered shows improvement, which is the most important thing,” he said.
“The bronze medal at the 2019 Asian indoor titles was a well-deserved reward for me as I pushed myself to my physical limit to be ready for that race. So, all in all, I am happy with my competitive position now.”
Alireza said that his coach, Olympic silver medallist Bill Barry, has been “nothing short of inspiring” and is driving his training success and growth as a rower.
Like all international athletes, Alireza’s ultimate aim is to compete in the Olympics.
“I think every child dreams of becoming an Olympian whatever their sport. Olympic medals represent a world standard in achievement. Just being able to participate is a validation of the athlete’s achievement. So reaching the Olympic Games is a natural ambition,” he said.
The Saudi rower has a word of advice for young athletes looking to become rowers: “Be sure you are passionate about the sport and are willing to go to great lengths to excel. We have limited training opportunities now for rowing in the Kingdom, but interest is growing.”
Alireza praised the efforts of the Saudi Rowing Federation to support his career, and said female athletes have a major role to play in rowing’s future in the Kingdom.
“Women’s participation in sport is vital to our growth as a nation. We have had women participants in the Saudi Rowing Federation from the first day, and we are proud of the diversity of our team,” he said. “I expect Saudi women will become a driving force in the growth of sports.”
Asked if Saudi Arabia will ever host an international rowing competition, Alireza reveals his medal-winning mentality with a one-word answer: “Yes.”