Old Carthusian Husein Alireza (G12) has qualified to row for Saudi Arabia in the Tokyo Olympics
We're immensely proud that former pupil Husein Alireza is making history by becoming the first Olympian rower from Saudi Arabia.
We spoke to Husein about his time at Charterhouse and what led him to rowing at international level:
I had a great time here – I was always involved in sports: house waterpolo; house squash; football and fives and tennis. That’s the thing about Charterhouse – it keeps you busy all the time; you’re either studying or doing sports. You don’t have a moment to yourself and that was great. Five years of that sets you up for life.
It was a bit of a culture shock though. People are very self-motivated and ambitious here which isn’t quite what Saudi is like, not at that age anyway. A lot of pupils already knew what they wanted to be – a doctor, lawyer … I can’t say that I did, but I knew I wanted to do something outstanding. And being here alone was a huge factor.
I tried rowing first when I was at Charterhouse. It was a round robin thing where you tried lots of different sports in a week. I remember my rowing try-out – it was winter so wet and windy. And one of our friends, Sebastian English (G12), fell in out of our 8! That was very funny. It was a tough experience though – blades everywhere! The round robin is when I also started squash and the squash took over – we won a few competitions including coming second in Nationals. I stopped squash after Charterhouse but it was my favourite sport here.
When I was in Edinburgh I wasn’t an athlete at all. I found I had so much free time, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I’m so used to a strict regime – this was more of a culture shock than coming to Charterhouse. Despite the free time I did little to no exercise for four years. And then I went to Cambridge for my Masters and this was much more like Charterhouse: way more intense so I felt more at home. That’s where I started rowing.
On my first day at Hughes Hall I bumped into an Old Carthusian. We weren’t friends when at School but we bonded immediately and became best friends – this was Louis Speelmans (F12). Rowing was something we both wanted to try out so we joined the Hughes Hall Boat Club together. Initially it was a social thing. And then my numbers began to improve quite quickly in comparison to the rest of the squad. So much so that by the end of the year the coach told me: when you leave you should really take this further. I didn’t really take it seriously until someone from the Cambridge Blue Boat approached me. He explained the reason why he had started rowing was to find his ceiling, and to see how far he could go with the sport. So I looked into it and then realised the opportunity I had to also represent the country internationally. At that point Saudi had never been represented for rowing. So there was an opportunity to be the first Saudi rower! But could I be competitive? Could I be the first?
And then I stumbled across an article about an Indian man who started training in 2012 and eventually qualified for the Rio Olympics in 2016. As soon as I read that article I knew I was in trouble. If he could do it, maybe I could too? I read that article a year into the Olympiad so whilst he had four years, I only had three years.
So I sent an email to all the best rowing clubs in London and one interviewed me. At the interview I met my coach Bill Barry (silver medalist in the coxless fours at the 1964 Olympics – in Tokyo funnily enough). He was looking for a project for Tokyo and he believed in me. At that point we said we’d give it a year and check numbers. After that first year he had never in his career seen numbers improve so drastically. And I do believe that is because I was so active here, at Charterhouse, creating that base level of fitness.
Training started in September 2017 and I entered a few domestic races. But the Asian Games, which is the second largest sports event in the world after the Olympics, was happening that summer and I wanted to compete. So immediately we had a goal with a very close timeframe.
Perhaps naively, I thought this was a physical challenge, but it’s actually a mental challenge. I had to drop everything else. No work, no nothing. It’s very disciplined. You have to be in bed by 10pm every night, including weekends. You’re up early, you’re saying no to invites including weddings and funerals. And initially it was hard for my friends to understand. Especially as I wasn’t open about my end goal as I didn’t want the pressure. I was blessed to have a very supportive family and close friends though.
By August we got in touch with the Saudi Olympic committee and asked them to enter me into the Asian games. They too were supportive and loved the fact that I was introducing new sports to the region. I was entered and when I got there the magnitude hit me! My competitors were Olympians! The Indian man who had been my inspiration was there (I introduced myself and told him my story) and I was competing next to a Japanese competitor who I had watched in Rio. It was surreal. Seeing the Saudi flag flying for the first time in a rowing event I just thought ‘what are you doing here!?’
Mental focus is vital. And the way to stay focused is to remember why you’re doing it. Remember the goal: I’m making history. The first rower in Saudi and the GCC. But also at this point it’s now not just for me. Getting to Tokyo means absolutely the world to me but it’s also increasingly for my family and coach who have invested in me and had faith in me. Giving them that would be incredible.
We wish Husein and all of his team, the very best of luck for the Tokyo Olympics!