To represent your country is a honour, to compete in the Olympic Games a dream, but behind the scenes it’s just plain hard work.
That is what Dr Ishan Al Marzouqi (pictured above), who this week attempts to become the first Emirati to qualify for the rowing competition at the Olympics, is fast finding out.
Al Marzouqi, who studied in London and has a PhD in chemical engineering, is going through a remarkable ascent to the top of the sport – but it has not come without sacrifices.
“I only started rowing seven months ago,” says the 28-year-old from his training base in Thailand. “I first saw the sport when I was in London and watched it on television, but as for participating, it started when I saw an advert by the [Dubai Rowing and Sculling Club] looking for people to join. I called the person on the ad up and that’s how I got involved.
“It’s not an easy sport to take up or to learn as it’s quite technical. It is also very tough on you physically as it works every muscle in the body and I feel the aches all the time.
“It is also a big sacrifice, especially for work and the family as I have a 16-month-old son. I have to go and train straight after work, sometimes leaving early, and on weekends I train in the mornings. I hardly get to spend time with them.”
Al Marzouqi’s South African coach Kevin Muller, who is head coach at the Dubai Rowing and Sculling Club, explains how the Shanghai qualifications for the Asia region will work this week.
“There are 23 other countries here trying to qualify,” says Muller. “The competition will have four heats, semi-final and final.
“From the heats the first-placed finishers get put through to one semi-final, while two repechage races are held to decide the other semi-final. The top three finishers from each semi-final go through to the final. It is a fairly tough qualifying route, but unfortunately one that needs to be taken based on the number of entries here.
“We were hoping to compete against only 12 boats, but all that has changed now and we have 23 boats to race against.
“But it gives him [Ishan] more opportunities if he fails in the heats because he will still get a chance to get in through the repechage.”
Another hurdle Al Marzouqi had to overcome while training for the two-kilometre race was finding the required stretch of water to practise on. This only happened recently.
“The training went well, but we were allowed full use of the four-and-a-half-kilometre stretch of water only last week. Prior to that we were training on a 1,000-metre stretch of water, which is not adequate at this level. But we managed to do it and we are here representing the country,” says Muller.
Al Marzouqi, who is a head researcher at Dubiotech, has had to pay for the camp and qualification trip from his own expenses after not receiving enough support.
Muller’s coaching is also voluntary, but Al Marzouqi is hoping that, in the future, by getting an interest for the sport in the country he will be able to pass on the good deed.
“Rowing can also grow in the UAE among the nationals. If at the traditional dhow racing you took the locals doing the traditional wooden boat rowing and told them to start trying out for the Olympics rowing [team] you would have more people involved because these are the perfect candidates who can help develop the sport.”
Muller adds: “We [the Dubai Rowing and Sculling Club] are looking for other nationals as we want to form a team for the Olympics, the Pan-Arab games and look forward to future competitions.
“It is a four-to-five-year plan, but we need interest in the sport especially from the local community because only they can represent their country. And so if we could get the guys from the traditional dhows to move over it would be great because there is a lot of experience and also raw talent there.”
Muller says Al Marzouqi has become an ambassador for his country and interest in rowing is already growing. “A lot of people are now asking us about the development of rowing here. We have also had our friends from Qatar approach us to help develop the sport by forming some sort of inter-Gulf rowing regatta.
“It’s great as we are all on the same level playing field when it comes to experience as this is a developing sport in the Gulf region.”
So does Ishan Al Marzouqi think he can become the first Olympic rower for the UAE in Beijing this year? “We didn’t know how many teams there will be and it will be very tough, but I am confident and will try my best and see how it goes from there.”
Muller added: “We are positive, the only downside is the amount of rain [in Thailand] we’ve been experiencing, which is affecting training.”
If he does qualify it will be the National Olympic Committee’s responsibillity to help him to prepare to realise his dream and he will be left with only three and a half months to train for the world’s most watched sporting event. However, for somebody who took just seven months to reach such a high standard, few would doubt his capabilities.