As Husein Alireza sat nursing a rib injury just two months out from the Tokyo Games, he wondered if this was all really a sign. When it came down to it, after a training programme decimated by injury, illness and the tragic passing of his mother, a major part of him wondered if he really wanted to be Saudi Arabia’s first Olympic rower at all.
He had figured out pretty early in life that he needed structure. To thrive he required deadlines, goals and targets, all of which he found in abundance amongst the Neo-Gothic buildings of Charterhouse School in Surrey, England. Known for its sporting prowess, the prestigious boarding school governed young lives through a regimen of academia and sport, and Alireza loved it, excelling at squash and cross country while playing pretty much any other sport he could get his hands on. Although the four years that followed at Edinburgh University offered him a glimpse of freedom he found uncomfortable (“there was so little work, and I did zero sport”), a post-graduate course at Cambridge brought him rushing back to self. It was there that he found rowing.
What you have to remember is that none of this was meant to happen. Not really. If you’d asked Alireza what he knew about rowing in 2016 you could have written his answer down on a napkin. “I’d have probably said something about Ivy League schools and that I’d seen it on the movie The Social Network,” he says Zooming in with YUNG from his family home in Riyadh, “but really I knew nothing.”
Fast forward five years and he had finished ninth at the Asian Games, picked up a bronze medal at the Asian Indoor Rowing Championships and had qualified for the Olympics. And that wasn’t even the best thing that had come from his going to Cambridge.