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Tokyo Olympics: Dara Alizadeh takes single-minded approach for Bermuda



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Dara Alizadeh after winning the Boat Race with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic
Dara Alizadeh after winning the Boat Race with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Paul Sanwell/OP Photographic

When the pandemic first started to take its grip on the world, it turned everything on its head.

Only now, nearly 18 months on, can we start to see a shift towards some semblance of order that we can kind of recognise.

The year-long delay of the Tokyo Olympics caused plenty of head scratching for many athletes, who had mapped out a route to the Far East during the course of the Olympiad.

One of those was Dara Alizadeh.

“I was obviously pretty bummed,” he says, looking back to March 2020. “It had been what I had been getting up for every morning at 4.30am, so I felt pretty sorry for myself for about a week.

“Then I realised, ‘Snap out of it’. This was the reality, and I changed the perspective to ‘how am I going to come out of this better? This is the situation, how am I going to benefit from it?’.

“The reality was that I had only been sculling at a high level for eight months, so another year would be huge. If anything, this was a really good opportunity to keep practising – ‘Let everyone else be really bummed, be really appreciative, and spend more time in a single scull’.”

Alizadeh had taken a gap year from studying education, policy and international development at Hughes Hall to trial for Bermuda in the single scull, a decision he made having been president of Cambridge University Boat Club for their 2019 Boat Race victory.

It had set him off to train full-time, returning to Boston in the US, then spending three months in Sydney, Australia, working with CUBC consultant coach Tim McLaren.

Having returned to Boston in preparation for the Americas Olympic qualifier in Rio, which were to be held in April 2020, everything then just stopped.

“I was just loitering almost because you don’t really know what’s going on, there is no racing going on, so it was tough mentally and physically to keep training at a high level,” explains Alizadeh, who is of Iranian, British and Bermudan descent and is a US citizen.

An option was to do a second gap year from his studies to maintain the pursuit of Olympic dreams, but he opted to return to focus on coursework, dissertation and exams, while still training – but alongside the Cambridge squad rather than with them.

Alizadeh’s focus remained the single scull.

“The best thing was just being here with Rob (Baker, the CUBC chief coach), which was great, and I made some of the best strides in moving a single in Cambridge,” he says.

“I think part of what I missed for the previous 16 months was just having people around.

“The single scull is a lonely life, and just having a team again was quite nice – even though I was quite separated from them in that I was never in boats with them.

“It was just nice to see people every day who are also training, have the same hiccups and striving for something, as opposed to just being by myself.”

Having been granted elite sport exemption to train throughout the lockdown in November, it was during the post-Christmas lockdown that Alizadeh had to make a sudden decision to leave the UK in order to be able to get to the Olympic qualifier in March.

He trained at a rowing lake in Sarasota, Florida, alongside some of the US scullers, who had their trials in late February.

It reaped its rewards as Alizadeh booked a place to become Bermuda’s third sculler at an Olympics, after Jim Butterfield in 1972 and Shelley Pearson in 2016, but things did not go quite as he hoped.

“I was putting together really fast times in average conditions and so I felt so ready in Rio, but once it all just started, it went from bad to worse, unfortunately,” he says.

“Luckily, I still qualified but performance wise it was not good. It was a bit of a bummer because it was what I had been preparing for for 18 months.

“On one side, you can have the best race of your life and not achieve what you wanted.

“On the flipside, sometimes you don’t have a good race and manage to just do enough to scrape by.

“I guess the positive was that I qualified and learnt from it. It’s been very helpful leading up to Tokyo now.”

The experience in Brazil helped Alizadeh apply more perspective to the experiences.

He had been so concerned about trying to qualify for the Olympics that he did not enjoy the process.

“I was so caught up in the result. Of course, when you’re only thinking about the result, you don’t think about what you’re doing,” he explains.

“Also, emotionally, it was just hard; I was not in a good place.

“Then it hit me, ‘I’m going to the Olympics’. So now what? It had all been about qualifying. I had to get over that hurdle, and worry about the Olympics when they come.”

That has meant that Alizadeh has just been relishing the opportunity to put in some valuable training since his return to Cambridge, where he completed his dissertation on Bermudan schools.

He applied some technical changes to the stroke, and that paid dividends with victory in the time trial and lane race at the Metropolitan Regatta.

The fun of competing had returned, with the emphasis on focusing on the process in the belief that the result would then take care of itself.

“I think to myself, ‘how awesome is this, that I can go out on a flat day in Ely, in the sun, the boat is moving well, and Rob or Jordan (Stanley, the CUBC assistant coach) says make this change and it makes a positive impact’,” says Alizadeh.

“There is always something to work on and improve, but it’s tangible; you see the progress, and progress is the best motivator. It’s just about enjoying it.”

He adds: “What an opportunity and what a fun thing to get to go to the Olympics. This is the stage, let’s see what you can do, not for anyone else – this is for me.

“I don’t have a pay cheque resting on this, or anything else. I’ve been working for a long time on this, now is the opportunity to tie all the pieces together.”

The fun of competing had returned, with the emphasis on focussing on the process in the belief that the result would then take care of itself.

“I think to myself, 'how awesome is this, that I can go out on a flat day in Ely, in the sun, the boat is moving well, and Rob or Jordan (Stanley, the CUBC assistant coach) says make this change and it makes a positive impact',” says Alizadeh.

“There is always something to work on and improve, but it’s tangible; you see the progress, and progress is the best motivator. It’s just about enjoying it.”

He adds: “What an opportunity and what a fun thing to get to go to the Olympics. This is the stage, let’s see what you can do, not for anyone else - this is for me.

“I don’t have a pay cheque resting on this, or anything else. I’ve been working for a long time on this, now is the opportunity to tie all the pieces together.”



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