Boston’s Head of the Charles regatta is billed as the world’s largest two-day rowing event, featuring over 8,000 rowers representing 600 different universities and rowing clubs from all over the world.
Amidst all the excitement of one of rowing’s signature events, no team is getting more attention than the five rowers and one alternate from Baghdad, Iraq.
During their six weeks in the United States, members of the Iraqi national rowing team have gotten used to photo ops — they’ve been interviewed by everyone from CNN to USA Today. On a recent Sunday morning, less than a week before the Head of the Charles and seconds before they were to push off for a camera-friendly race, they discovered a problem.
Just before the race, the team needed help with an improperly placed pontoon. Normally, the Iraqi National team doesn’t use pontoons — rowing’s equivalent of training wheels. But, for that race, instead of perfecting their technique with advice from US rowing experts, they were teaching rowing to members of the US military, all of whom have served in Iraq.
As the mixed teams of Iraqis and Iraq war vets took off on a friendly race on the Charles River, the sound of camera shutters almost drowned out the sounds of oars. Bruce Smith, executive director of Community Rowing and a coach at Riverside Boat Club, says the Iraqis are enthusiastic rowers wherever they go, but Sunday’s event was special.
“It’s amazing, Smith said. “Watching guys conversing together in Arabic, working together in a boat trying to do the same motion as guys who are speaking American, it really was a special moment and it’s what sports are for. If it doesn’t bring people together, why are we doing it?”
Lieut. Col. John Richardson served three tours in Iraq, where members of the US military are often asked to train Iraqis. He enjoyed Sunday’s role reversal.
“You could just see the pride that they had, that they know that they are experts,” Richardson said. “They brought us in today, set us down, and they were fabulous instructors.”
Even more, the Iraqi team speaks to the progress the country has made in the years since the American invasion, Richardson said.
“The team is made up of Sunni, Shia, and Kurds, which to me captures the Iraq success story,” Richardson said. “So it was an honor for me to get into a boat with a bunch of guys because I know where they came from and what they’ve been through for the last — really not just 10 years — but the last 40 years.”
Richardson says he’s not surprised that Iraq is stable enough to field teams for international sporting events. But, as a country in the midst of desert, he was surprised that a rowing team is among them.
“Iraqi crew, I never would have thought,” Richardson said, chuckling. “I mean, they do have some pretty big rivers that run through that country. But they’re excellent athletes. They clearly know their stuff and I look forward to seeing them race in the Head of the Charles.”
As the teams carried their boats back to the bay, Lieut. Col. Tom Watson, one of the lucky few who didn’t get drenched during the race, was looking forward to spending some more time with the Iraqi rowers.
“This was great,” Watson said. “It’s good to see some Iraqi people here and, as we get a chance to mingle a little bit, we’ll talk about where they’re from, how things are in Iraq. But just the fact that they’re over here rowing, that’s a good sign.”
Watson didn’t get the chance to ask that question. The Iraqis left before lunch, to find dry clothes and to avoid a meal that would make it even harder to drop weight before this weekend’s races. But, a few days later, while his teammates warmed up at the Riverside Boat Club, Iraqi rower Haider Rashid answered the question of how things are in his home country.
It is “getting better, by time, not like before,” Rashid said. “We have a lot of checkpoint(s). We feel a little bit safer.”
Rashid’s been rowing since 2003. He’s won gold at the Arab games, silver at the Asian games, and represented his country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And while he hasn’t always felt safe traveling to and from training sessions, he never worries when he’s on the water.
“No, we are fine on the water,” Rashid said. “We feel it’s like our water.”
Rashid will find out if the Charles River is also his water on Saturday in the men’s championship singles. His teammates will compete Sunday afternoon in the Head of the Charles lightweight fours.