Thursday September 30th, 2010

The first thing the visitors noticed was the calm. Along the sides of Lake Carnegie, the man-made facility constructed for rowing in Princeton, N.J. a century ago, sat picturesque grass embankments and a spanking clean boathouse. On Tuesday, the members of the Iraqi rowing team affirmed their approval. "It's very clean, very peaceful, very, I would say, almost perfect," said Ahmed Abdul Salam. The scene was different several years ago when Salam and his partner went out for a row on the Tigris River, a venue encircled by a battered Baghdad landscape, security checkpoints and, oh yes, the soldiers who began shooting at them. "We heard the pops in the water," he recalls. "They told us to stop. We were a threat. We were being arrested."

Salam tried to explain that they were, in fact, athletes in training. Those protrusions from their vessel were not projectiles casing the landscape for targets, but oars that could propel them to something greater than the land that surrounded them. "But to the soldiers, we must be terrorists," Salam said. "One said to us, 'you come to explode the bridge. You must be stopped.' The idea of using this place to practice sport made no sense."

It took some pleading, some phone calls to sports ministers, verification and explanation. Today, there are 60 members of the national team who toil in the tight and messy confines of the river. Today the soldiers wave at them. "We know them," Salam says. "They watch out for us."

With these obstacles behind them, the Iraqi rowing team trains. At the Beijing Olympics last summer, where Iraq fielded a delegation of four athletes, two were rowers. Haeidr Nawzad and Hamzah Hussein Jebur finished last in their heat of the double sculls, 34 seconds behind the British pair that won the heat. They did not actually qualify for the Games, but received a place when an IOC panel convened to award a spot that had been vacated by a North Korean pair. In a land ravaged by war and despair, Nawzad, the best English speaker of his team, sees a great benefit to his sport. "Hope," he says. "Being at your best at something gives a man hope."

Today, Nawzad, 27, and Jebur, 34, are the team's best hope to compete at the London Games, though a quartet of lightweights, including Salam, will try to gain a berth at the World Championships next summer in Bled, Slovenia. Their journey has hardly been smooth sailing.

"We first trained without technique," says Nawzad, who converted from kayaking in 2004. "We had to find ways to get equipment. Our first boats arrived without oars. Then we needed instruction, because we were just trying to paddle any way we could."

They attended camps in places like Egypt and Sweden, piggybacking on the generosity of national teams that welcomed them. In 2008, the Iraqis were among those who received places for countries without qualifying results in certain sports. Essentially, the IOC, in order to broaden participation, awards certain wildcard entries that do not require typical minimum qualification standards. Jebur carried the Iraqi flag. "I was so happy and so proud after all that our country had been through," he said. "Millions of people could see a happy Iraq."

There are some subjects the athletes will not discuss, as if the act of doing can replace the more painful act of talking. Though coaches will only say they have a mix of religions represented on the team, they don't speak easily of who might be what. "If we were not rowers, pulling together," says Nawzad, miming the breaking of a stick, "maybe we would be pulling apart." Gone are the days when Uday Hussein, Saddam's sadistic son, ran the Iraqi Olympic committee and often tortured athletes as a punishment for poor performance. "It was okay for us, because he didn't care about rowing." Nawzad says. "We were lucky."

Nawzad is Kurdish, but knows his commitment to his teammates crosses boundaries. He has only a 10 minute bike ride each day to the Tigris, but never knows if his partner will make it. Hamzah has to drive half an hour to the river and must pass seven checkpoints each way. "Some days we reach the checkpoints and something is happening, " Hamzah says, "so they tell us we cannot go past. That is a day without training."

Both men insist they have not lost friends or family members, only acquaintances, in the fighting of recent years. Today's Iraqi Olympic committee can grant an annual budget of roughly $40,000 for the entire national team to train, travel, purchase equipment and receive stipends. Then they ask for individual donations. Somehow they find generous doctors, teachers, businessmen who have slipped under the radar of conflict to support their countrymen in a peaceful venture.

The trip to the States came to fruition after Bill Engeman and Bruce Smith, two coaches on this side of the pond, traveled to Iraq to see the rowers there. Told that it would not be safe for them to conduct a clinic on the Tigris River, they instead went to a more remote training site in the Kurdish sector of the country on Lake Dokan that was considered more secure and less dangerous. On that trip, they arranged the Iraqis' journey to Princeton. Smith, a coach from Boston-based Community Rowing, was among those on the trip. "I'm just a stupid rowing coach," he says, "but when you consider what our servicemen and women are doing over there, the least we could do is show a fraction of the courage that they show every day in order to generate some goodwill."

And the Iraqis are grateful for their chance to learn on a three-week trip that will also take them to Boston and Cincinnati. U.S. rowers have captured 84 Olympic medals in the modern Games. In contrast Iraq has only one medal across all sports, a bronze in weightlifting in 1960, to show for its participation in 12 Olympics. "The Iraqis need a structure," explains Bryan Volpenhein, a three-time Olympian and gold medalist in 2004, who was offering pointers on Tuesday. "They need a style they can adopt, like the Italian style, the Canadian style, the U.S. style. They need to pick a place to start. Then they can evolve and use their strengths. They are very passionate and they really love what they do. Even with the language barrier you can tell how much they want to learn and how much they want to work. They understand gestures. If they're too tense in their upper body, I can tense up mine from far away and their coach knows right away what to tell them to do ... They can hear everything. I have to yell at our guys through a megaphone. They're out there talking to coaches in a normal tone of voice and they can hear him perfectly."

As a reference point, the best time on an ERG machine, stationary equipment on which rowers can complete a makeshift row, is six minutes, nine seconds, about 20 seconds slower than their U.S. counterparts. Achieving sync is a more daunting task. "Right now, their guys have to develop their aerobic capacity and they need to learn how to move the boat effectively without slowing it down," says Smith. "It's like tapping a wheel down the road. If you tap it the wrong way, you stop it."

For Nawzad, the trip can yield a gold mine of information. "It is a new experience for us," he says. "We need technique. We have some will, but we need the way from people who know it better. Visits like these can make our future."

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