A renaissance of rowing in the Maldives continued this week as two students from Addu Atoll travelled to Chungju, South Korea, to compete in the Asian 2012 Olympic Qualification Regatta.
The pair, Ibrahim Sharu-u from Feydhoo School and Fathimath Hasna Hassan from Addu High School, are competing in the men’s and women’s singles sculls events which began on Thursday.
The team’s coach Natasha Howard, former Olympic rower for Great Britain and World Championship bronze medallist, hopes the event will enhance the competitor’s knowledge of their own sport as well as raising international recognition of the Maldives’ potential as a rowing nation.
“Both athletes are really enjoying themselves and getting the most out of being surrounded by professional sportsmen and women, asking lots of questions and building their knowledge of the sport,” said Natasha.
“I hope our invitation to participate in the 2012 Asian Olympic Qualification Regatta will raise awareness not only within Addu but also within National bodies such as the National Olympic Committee (NOC), that the Maldives has the potential to compete on an international level through rowing,” she continued.
The successful teams at the South Korean event will go on to compete in this summer’s London Olympics. Competition has been hard with Hasna and Sharu-u competing against teams able to train full-time using professional equipment.
Additionally, many of the athletes are 20-40 kilograms heavier than their Maldivian opponents as well as often being a few inches taller – a great advantage in the sport.
Natasha believes the event’s real importance lies in terms of the sport’s growth in the Maldives and the personal development of the athletes involved: “Experience and knowledge gathering is what this regatta is about for us so that we can begin to build a truly competitive Maldives team over the next four years.”
“The great thing about being here is that every country has started in a similar fashion to the Maldives – coming to take part in their first ever international event when facilities and knowledge were still in their infancy so they can remember what it was like and are incredibly supportive of our team,” said Natasha.
“We will get to race four times over the next four days which is a fantastic opportunity for both athletes to build on each race. Our aim is for them to come off the water and able to say that they had nothing left to give and that was their best race to date.”
Long term development
The re-birth of rowing in the Maldives was given initial impetus after the British Olympic silver medallist rower Guin Batten became the first person to cross the Maldives’ Equatorial Zero Degree Channel in March 2010.
Batten became the first person to cross the 60 kilometre channel between Huvadhoo Atoll and the island of Fuahmulah. She holds the record for the fastest crossing, completing the feat in 7 hours 16 minutes.
The world-first attempt at crossing was supported by British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.
Batten subsequently arranged for two four-person ‘quad’ rowboats and several coaches to be brought to Thinadhoo and Ghadadhoo in 2010 with the support of BA, British Rowing and Westminster School. The Maldives High Commission in London also held a fundraising event to raise funds for the purchase and shipment of the equipment.
The first local rowing association had been set up in Thinadhoo after the then Province Minister for the Upper South Province, Umar Jamaal, visited the World Coastal Championships in Plymouth in October in 2009.
The following year, after Batten’s record-setting, the Maldives was welcomed as the 131st member of the International Rowing Federation (FISA).
“My ambition is to see [rowing] take off again in the Maldives, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other,” Batten said at the time.
Rowing was once the primary form of transportation between islands in the Maldives before the widespread introduction of diesel engines to the country during the 1980s. Most Maldivians with practical rowing experience are now in their sixties.
In November 2011, the Maldives first ever inter-school rowing tournament was held in Hithadhoo, Addu Atoll, to coincide with the SAARC summit celebrations. Five local coaches were trained in order to facilitate the event which included all 12 schools in the atoll. Another inter-school competition is scheduled for this July.
The subsequent interest in the sport prompted the start of swimming classes for those wishing to begin rowing but who were unable to swim. Classes for around 100 people began in the months following the SAARC summit.
Swimming courses have also been held in Hulhumale’ in preparation for the sport’s introduction in North Male’ Atoll. Three boats arrived in 2011 and a boat house has been constructed. There are plans for a new coach to come out in 2012, according to the Maldives NOC.
In the long-term, it is hoped that local coaches will be able to continue to develop the sport. The International Rowing Federation (FISA) assists in such courses as part of its Olympic Solidarity programme which aids the global development of sport. It is hoped that courses to train 20 to 25 new coaches will take place in June or July of this year.
All expenses for the athletes competing in South Korea are being covered by the FISA and the South Korean government.
Secretary of the Maldives NOC Marzook said that Olympic Solidarity will provide $10,000 for the training. Marzook explained that rowing was a very expensive sport for a country like the Maldives: “Normally US$6000 is allocated for training in other sports.”
“Olympic Solidarity know we really need the money. They really want to develop rowing in the Maldives,” said Marzook.
Funding and equipment remain scarce while the sport continues to find its sea-legs in the Maldives. Natasha works on a volunteer basis and has her expenses are paid by Addu City Council. All the equipment used has been donated from clubs in the UK or bought with the proceeds from fund-raising events.
“We have four doubles (two man boats), one single and one quad (four man boat). We have no rowing machines. All the rowers are very aware of the need to treat what equipment we do have very well so that it lasts as long as possible. The quad we currently have we cannot use because it is too heavy to lift and requires a trolley to move it,” Natasha said.
The team are said to be taking full advantage of the equipment available in South Korea as well as learning from other athletes about how they train for competitive rowing.
Fortunately for the sport’s future, there has been no scarcity of enthusiasm for rowing in Addu. Training sessions are constantly oversubscribed with Natasha having to facilitate nearly 200 students with only nine operational seats.
The NOC’s rowing report described the plans to expand the sport from the student community to include greater sections of society.
“The future long-term sustainable success of rowing in the Maldives lies with having well trained enthusiastic coaches and involving all sections of the community within the sport,” said the report.