Saudi rower and his 80-year-old British coach making history in Tokyo

Husein Alireza the first rower to represent Saudi thanks to the 1964 Tokyo medallist

Bill Barry and Husein Alireza are two rowers making history at Tokyo 2020.

Barry won silver for Great Britain in rowing at the 1964 Tokyo Games, and has been the coach of Saudi Arabian Alireza for three years. Alireza made history by becoming the first Olympic Saudi rower on Friday when he took part in the single sculls.

When 80-year-old Barry speaks, you know he really believes in his prodigy.

“It is a very demanding sport and Hussein proved in the past three years that he is dedicated to it. This will inspire other Saudi youngsters to be as committed as he is for whatever sport they do,” he said.

Alireza is a newbie to rowing but he grew up fast in a sport that is not common in his home country and after a tough 2020 when he lost his mother to cancer during the pandemic.

When in lockdown, Saudi Arabia decided to close their border. People who left the country couldn’t return. Which directly affected the duo.

“I knew the times he needed to qualify, and from his second year of training I already knew that he was capable of doing it. When the third year was there, we thought that we could get better, but Covid-19 happened, life is like that," said Barry.

"We were unable to do any boat training for 11 months. We tried to do some ergometer and running, but these are not good alternatives for someone who just started the sport."

Not only was training not normal but also competitions were hard to find. Alireza travelled with his coach to the US where they had a short training camp at the Olympic Centre in San Diego.

Their next destination was Tokyo, for the qualifying event. Alireza’s times were proof that he could make it. But on his arrival in May, he had discomfort in his abdomen. On the day of his race, he was in so much pain he had to visit a doctor who told him that he couldn’t compete because he had a stress fracture of a rib. But the rower refused to obey, and took part.

Once back in the UK, where Alireza lives and trains, he had surgery and was told that he had to stop training for two months, which meant he would miss qualifying. He had to wait for a call from the International Rowing Federation to tell him that he was allocated a place.

Meanwhile, he agreed with his doctor to reduce the recovery period to two weeks so he could prepare for his dream, competing at the Olympic Games.

On Friday, Alireza made his dream a reality. The result wasn't as important as this participation. His lungs were 70 per cent capacity following the injury. According to his coach “he deserves a gold medal for qualifying”. On Saturday, Alireza will be competing again in the repechage group, a second chance to advance.

Barry, meanwhile, reflected on the changes since he competed in 1964.

“It’s completely different with Covid-19 restrictions," he said. "We used to travel all together before, go out, see things, but now with the pandemic, our life in Tokyo is hotel room, coach, venue, and it’s the same for everyone.

“It is fantastically organised but it is a pity all these people who tried so hard to be here the last few years and not to be able to enjoy Japan which is a great place to be.

“Being an Olympian is something very important and I try to teach the people I coach about the Olympic values. There are only 100,000 Olympians alive. It is a small group and we can be very influential. I try to teach people to be sportsmanlike, fair and full of integrity. Sports has no borders, the more we get people together the more we will have a better world.”

Updated: July 28th 2021, 2:52 PM
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