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Iraqi rowing team makes a splash in the US

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Ann Hermes/Staff

(Read caption) Iraqi rower Khalid Ismael carries his single scull after rowing practice at the Riverside Boathouse in Cambridge, Mass.

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Iraqi rowers on the Tigris are surprising. But Iraqi rowers on the Charles River?

“It’s very exciting for us,” says Haidar Nawzad, a rower and the team’s de facto spokesman, as he speaks the best English. Eight members of the Iraqi National Rowing Team (all six rowers, plus two coaches) arrived in Boston in late September for a six-week stay in the United States.

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The team spent a week with the US National Team in Prin­ceton, N.J., then several more training on the Charles under the eye of Bruce Smith, a coach of the US team and executive director of Community Rowing, Inc., in nearby Brighton. “When they’re out on the water, doing the same things the American rowers are doing,” says Coach Smith, “it builds the kind of understanding of each other that I don’t think is very easy to establish in any other arena.”

Team members are Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, but, Mr. Nawzad insists, “We are all Iraqi. There is no difference between us.” Smith concurs. “They get along really, really well. The sport of rowing has brought them together."

The rowers grew up along the Tigris, and fell in love with the sport. At first they were supported by Iraq’s Central Rowing and Canoe Federation. When they sought help from the International Olympic Committee, they attracted the attention of a BBC film crew, whose report caught the eye of US crew booster Bill Engeman. He contacted Smith, and the two of them flew to Iraq to see the team in April.

Impressed by the Iraqis’ talent and dedication, Mr. Engeman and Smith invited them to the US to train. 
“We hope that this will be the beginning of an ongoing relationship,” Smith says. “They’ve invited me to come to Baghdad, and I’d really like to.” The rowers “tell me over and over how beautiful Baghdad is," which is quite at odds with what he's seen on the news.