Dara Alizadeh provides the perfect blend as Cambridge University Boat Club president
Hidden away on the Cam and the Great Ouse for now, the journey to the 2019 Boat Race on Sunday, April 7 is under way.
Dara Alizadeh has an authoritative persona that exudes an instantly engaging quality.
No matter the subject, from rowing to education, it is obvious that the 25-year-old immerses himself fully in the task in hand, and with clear relish.
We catch up at a point along what is a well-worn route for Alizadeh, the traverse across Cambridge from the Goldie Boathouse to the Faculty of Education, and while for many it would be an early morning meeting, by 9.30am the rower had already been on the go for four hours.
Alizadeh, though, was as fresh as a daisy, with the role as president of Cambridge University Boat Club obviously giving the Hughes Hall student extra vigour.
More challenging, however, was an opening question that sought to define how the smorgasbord of cultural backgrounds have developed and influenced his character.
“This is tough, this is a tough assessment here,” he says, but it is intriguing to find out which parts of the national stereotypes are represented by Alizadeh.
His father is from Iran, and his mother was born in Britain but moved to Bermuda as a youngster; the couple then met while studying at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
Alizadeh is a United States citizen, who grew up in Brookline, but still calls Bermuda home.
“I like to think I’m fairly laid-back but then there is a bit of the American go-getter; going and trying new things such as before I was at Cambridge being a teacher at Winchester College,” says Alizadeh, in trying to analyse his own personality.
“I like to think that was jumping into the unknown, and I think that could be considered the American risk chasing.
“Then, there is the Bermudan laid-back, British/Bermudan reserve, the American drive and forwardness.
“I think I’m pretty friendly too. Every time I’ve been to Iran, and my friends who have gone to visit, always say Iranians are very friendly and I like to think I carry that.
“I like to be a good host, and entertain, I think.”
Although he may have been put on the spot with regards to some of those personality traits, they do become more evident as we talk about his life and what has led him to this point – as figurehead of the Light Blues.
Backgrounds are something that Alizadeh will have to harness with chief coach Rob Baker as they bring together many differing styles under one roof in order to help Cambridge beat Oxford in the Boat Race.
The more reserved British nature and the American forwardness will have to be applied hand in hand during the six-month programme as the ebbs and flows of sporting and academic demands hit individuals at different periods, but everything about his demeanour suggests that Alizadeh will have no hesitation in tackling things head on, although with due understanding.
It is his description of the role as “to just ensure that everyone is able to row and get the most out of their experience” that hints of his nurturing qualities, before concluding “in doing so, that puts us in the best position to win the race.”
That development instinct was honed at Winchester College, his first stop after graduating from University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics.
After being contacted by an alumnus of Penn about a teaching and coaching opportunity, Alizadeh jumped into the unknown on the fellowship and through circumstance soon found himself taking on the role of head of rowing.
He describes those in his charge as “pretty special”, and having outdone themselves for “a small rowing school on an even smaller river”.
Switching hats back from coach to rower, Alizadeh has been able to draw on those experiences in Hampshire.
“It really gives me perspective that when a coach says something they’re not doing it because they say so, they’re doing it because they want you to get better,” he says.
“Some athletes can make it an athlete versus a coach such as ‘the coach is making us do all this erging’. Having coached, I look at it that you’re not an employee, you’re here because you want to be here.
“If you don’t like it, leave. No-one on our team is like this, but in the past I would hear athletes say ‘the coach is making us do this work-out’.
“I think that is probably what I have learned the most – listen to the coaches. It sounds simple but you don’t really appreciate that they’re taking the time to really focus on you.
“You can tell when a coach is tuned in to what you’re doing and really takes an interest. That should inspire you to do as they are saying, and really focus on it.
“An athlete doing well is good for him, and that’s a great relationship – they are looking out for your interest. They are looking out to provide for the team; it’s so you can provide for the team but in doing so you are going to make yourself the best version you can be.”
Rowing was not Alizadeh’s first sporting passion though, and the T-shirt he wears as we sit in the coffee shop gives the game away.
It read “National Prep Wrestling Tournament, Bethlehem, PA” and was a hint to his past as a Greco-Roman wrestler.
As the younger sibling, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of older brother Arya in wrestling, and that led to lifting the Junior Varsity New England Championship and a couple of tournament successes.
Given his height, 6ft 2in, he is not the ideal build for wrestling and the Varsity rowing coach at Belmont Hill School asked him to try out the sport.
Things blossomed as he went on to win a silver medal with the US at the World Under-23 Rowing Championships and trialled for the senior squad this past summer.
And there were transferable skills between the two sports.
“Cardio wise, there was nothing more difficult than a wrestling match,” said Alizadeh. “Wrestling practices were just brutal. Rowing practices are hard.
“It’s a tough comparison; I wouldn’t want to do them back to back to compare them.
“With the toughest wrestling matches, I just remember dragging myself off the mat, but then there are also some practices with the rowing where I think ‘I don’t want to do that ever again, why do I do this sport?’.
“Because of that, I would always be in pretty good shape. I think that’s why there’s a link between them; there are a number of guys who did wrestling and if they were taller, interchange it.”
Just as wide a blend as his heritage is Alizadeh’s coaching experiences, from high school to national team to university in the US and Cambridge.
“I try to take things that worked well from this one, not the philosophy, but positive aspects and try to apply it here,” he said.
“That’s worked really well. If you’re in one system for so long, you will get really good at it but you might lose the other points of view.
“You might learn something about your catch here, toughness in this group, relaxation in this group and rhythm in this one; that’s what I try to draw upon – all those different aspects.”
It is why you just get the feeling that Alizadeh is a good fit to lead the CUBC squad this year, given his eagerness to draw on all of his experiences – and all that heritage.
Find the right squad dynamics
The dynamics of the team and systems and structures is clearly an area of immense interest for Dara Alizadeh.
His decision to study education, policy and international development at Hughes Hall came about during his interest in how things operated at Winchester College.
So Alizadeh will look to apply lessons from the different squad of which he has been a part, although all he stresses that each one takes on varied traits.
“Banter, for example, doesn’t really seem like it plays a huge part but it does because you spend a lot of time with these guys and for a team culture there are some things that have to be uniform – like discipline, focus, mental toughness, these are all things that have to be there no matter what,” he said.
“Other than that, how guys interact with one another is different with every team and what works for one team is not necessarily going to work for the others.
“Each team has their own dynamic and you just have to make sure it’s positive and it works. As long as you’re getting the best out of everyone, you can’t force any dynamic on the team.”
Alizadeh does believe you can try to cultivate the ethos that when the team does well, the individual does well.
“Try to shift the incentive a little bit to align the incentives, and that is important throughout so you can move those from team to team,” he said. “What motivates the team might be different from each year, and guys change so you have to gage that.”