Alizadeh on a mission to reach Tokyo
There is a scene in the 2009 action thriller Law Abiding Citizen where Gerard Butler’s character tells his fellow inmate, “Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten”.
As a master of philosophy student at Cambridge University, one would presume that Dara Alizadeh’s film tastes are slightly more highbrow than the less than critically acclaimed movie starring grizzled Scotsman Butler.
Yet it is the quote Alizadeh uses to describe his difficulties in switching from sweep rowing (he helped the Light Blues to back-to-back wins in the Boat Race as part of the coxed eights) to single sculling in which he hopes to represent Bermuda at the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
Adjusting from one oar to two has not been a seamless transition for Alizadeh, who was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, but grew up in Harrington Sound.
He freely admits to getting “toasted” on occasions at the World Rowing Championships in Ottensheim, Austria, in August, but believes each humbling experience and painful lesson has taken him one stroke closer to his desired destination.
“I’ve gone from ten or 11 years’ experience [in the sweep] to very recently training at the elite level in the single,” Alizadeh said.
“There’s probably a 70 per cent overlap in terms of the physiological training and the demands on your body are similar.
“It’s just about learning that last 30 per cent or so. There’s certainly been a lot of growth needed. I’ve competed in different boat classes, but the singles is the most brutal of them.”
Swapping the team dynamic he thrived on being part of at Cambridge for the lonely hours oaring the Charles River in Boston in the singles has actually been far easier than Alizadeh anticipated.
Rather surprisingly for the 26-year-old, he has enjoyed the shift in mindset.
“Coming from some really great programmes with a lot of support, coaching, having team-mates, seeing people on a regular basis, to going out on my own, well, I thought it was going to be a challenge,” he said. “It’s actually been OK. I’ve embraced it pretty well and I’ve enjoyed going out on my own. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a village, it definitely does. But in terms of going out on the water and being in the race, it’s just me, and I’ve enjoyed that.”
Aside from his family’s support, Alizadeh, who is part Bermudian, British, American and Iranian, has benefited from the backing of the Bermuda Rowing Association, who are hoping he will become the island’s third rower behind Jim Butterfield and Shelley Pearson to reach the Olympics.
Pearson has also spoken to Alizadeh about her experiences of the variable conditions at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freita in Rio de Janeiro, the rowing venue for the 2016 Olympics and where the Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta will be held in April. A top-five finish will be required to punch Alizadeh’s ticket to Tokyo.
“After the university boat race [in April], I came to Boston and told my family, ‘I might as well give the Olympics a crack and try out the single for a bit,” Alizadeh said. “If it goes well and it looks like I can do it, I’ll pursue it’,
“It was a bit rough at first and there’s still a long way to go. I’ve got this special opportunity and a chance to represent Bermuda on the world stage. I should try to do it.
“I spoke to Shelley Pearson, who rowed for Bermuda at the Olympics in Rio, and talked about her experiences and what she went through during that [qualifying] year. I thought, ‘This sounds like a positive experience. I think I’ll enjoy this’.
“If you look back at Shelley’s heat in Rio, I think that’s something she will never forget or any of the scullers will ever forget. It was like ocean conditions on the lake and I think a couple of people flipped.
“That’s the conditions and you have to be ready for it. The water could be flat like it was in the final in Rio or it could be monsoon conditions, where the waves are crashing over the boat and it’s a survival of the fittest to get to the finish.”
Alizadeh’s introduction to a major competition came at the world championships, where he found himself in the same heat as title-holder Kjetil Borch from Norway. It proved to be a baptism of fire for the Bermudian, who placed 38th overall, a result he admits was “not the best on paper”, but served as a valuable lesson in his rowing education.
“I was up against the best of best, the fastest scullers in the world,” Alizadeh said. “It was initially quite humbling.
“In some of the heats, to be perfectly blunt, I got handled pretty good. The challenge was managing my own expectations and learning how to deal with big-time racing and big-time moments.
“In the heat, I was next to Kjetil Borch, the reigning world champion at the time, and he toasted me pretty quickly.
“That’s something I had to learn and there was no better way to learn it. Lessons not learned in blood are quickly forgotten. That’s what I took away from it.”
Having deferred the final year of his university degree to focus on Tokyo, Alizadeh will continue to train in Boston until the Charles River freezes over, at which point he will head to Sydney, Australia.
For three months, he will be based at the University of Technology Sydney Rowing Club, located near Sydney Harbour, a saltwater venue similar to the conditions at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freita.
“There’s definitely a lot of value in moving to Sydney,” said Alizadeh, who showed tangible signs of improvement at the Head Of The Charles regatta last month, finishing fifteenth.
“It has a saltwater harbour and there are places where it can get slightly rough, which is good practice for Lagoa.
“There’s also a good rowing culture in Australia. That will give me good rowing partners, which is one of the most important aspects, having people around you to push you and beat up on you if you’re not up to standard.
“It’s important to train in similar conditions to the qualifier and, if all goes well, the Olympics, which is also a saltwater venue. To try and replicate those conditions as much as possible, I think, is a smart move.”
Alizadeh seems adept at making smart moves, which is just as well, because there are sure to be more obstacles to be overcome and lessons to be learnt along his route to the “Land of the Rising Sun”.
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