Athlete of the Month – May 2017
Mohamed “Moe” Sbihi is a member of the Olympic Champion British men’s four – an achievement that saw him honoured by Queen Elizabeth with a prestigious MBE award. He tells us about the joys and challenges of time off after Rio and how, as a Muslim athlete, he’ll be combining racing and training with the holy month of Ramadan.
World Rowing: What have you been doing over the winter?
Mohamed Sbihi: Trying to get back into shape. After the Olympics, I had some downtime; the opportunity to rest and recover, see friends and family and go on holiday. Then before I knew it, the time off was gone and I was back into training. This winter can only be described as hell. It took a long time to get back into shape.
WR: How does it feel to be starting this racing season after the success of last season?
MS: It feels nice to be back racing. Racing is the fun part of what we do and we train so much for so little racing. Do not get me wrong, the first race felt very strange being sat on the start line again, but once the buzzer went, the excitement of racing was back.
WR: What did it mean to you to win Olympic gold?
MS: Relief. Huge relief. That was and has been the overriding feeling since the Olympics. You put so much effort into getting the opportunity to compete for a gold medal that when you eventually get there, you do not want to mess it up. To be able to cross that line in first place and take the gold medal was a sense of relief.
WR: How did being awarded an MBE compare with that?
MS: Being given the MBE is an honour and a very surreal feeling. To be recognised by the royal family is an honour and to be able to take my family to Buckingham Palace was great. To be able to enjoy the moment with them was great as my parents could not make it to Rio. This was a great way to say thank you to them for all the sacrifices they have made to help me along my way.
WR: How did you first get into rowing?
MS: I first got into rowing when I was tested and picked by a talent identification scheme called World Class Start. I had never rowed before and they said to me that I have the raw talent to win medals in the sport of rowing. It was weird to hear this as I had never rowed.
WR: Did you ever do other sports and why did rowing win out?
MS: I tried many sports growing up. Football, tennis, basketball and rugby. The reason why I pursued rowing…. very simple answer to that. I was good at rowing and not as good as I thought in the other sports. Rowing offered me the opportunity to become an Olympian and I could not turn that offer down. In addition, the real reason why I choose rowing was because it slowly took over my life. I wanted to do football and basketball, but when you commit so much time to rowing it just took off from there.
WR: How will you balance the requirements for Ramadan with the requirements for training and racing?
MS: We always plan a season in advance. Currently, Ramadan is during racing season and it would be foolish to try and fast. I do not fast then because I am in a crew boat and do not want them to feel the burden of worrying about me and questioning if I am strong enough or feeling ok. That said, physically I am strong enough to train or compete without food or drink during daylight hours. If I don’t fast when Ramadan is on, I delay it to the winter months where I can train and fast. It is a challenge that I love to do and I push my physical and mental limits during this month. I am just as strong as I am when not fasting and have got personal bests during this period. I always tell people to try it. Not for one day but for at least five days. No food or drink during daylight hours. Try training and see what your mind and body does.
WR: What is your favourite rowing venue?
MS: I have a list of places that I love for many different reasons. Bled, Slovenia and Aiguebillette, France because they are beautiful places to row. Bled gets a bit bouncy but the scenery is stunning. Karapiro, New Zealand means a lot to me as it was the place where I won my first senior medal. My long-term friend and pairs partner, James Foad, and I were able to finally complete our journey to a senior medal together in the same boat (M8+ silver, 2010 World Rowing Championships). That meant a lot. Plus, we went on a great holiday after and that makes the memory sweeter. Also, Lagoa, Rio for obvious reasons. To win a gold medal in such an iconic rowing venue was special and something I will look back on with fond memories. I will not forget how rough it was though and the challenge of rowing in such a difficult venue.
WR: Can you tell us about your favourite race?
MS: A favourite race is a hard one to select. As mentioned before, Karapiro 2010 was a great journey and I was very young and innocent in terms of rowing. The fun and pressure-free attitude we had that year was something I will never get again for obvious reasons. We pushed the great German crew right to the line and watching that race now brings back good memories. Even though we didn’t win, it is still a favourite of mine.
WR: Which sports person or people do you most admire and why?
MS: I have a couple that I look up to and try to learn from. Muhammed Ali for obvious reasons - his story and behaviour is legendary. Michael Jordan, the greatest to play the game of basketball - driven, hardworking and made all his teammates better. Michael Johnson similarly for his focus and attitude to training. Finally, Hicham El-Guerrouj is a Moroccan legend and I have been lucky to meet the greatest middle distance runner that has lived. His story is remarkable and his path to finally win an Olympic medal is one that every athlete needs to know. He was the favourite to win in 1996 and 2000, but a fall and pushing meant he did not win. Then he did the double in 2004 to win the 1500m and 5000m. Stuff of pure joy!
WR: What is your advice to aspiring rowers?
MS: Do not give in or quit. I always wanted to quit when I started rowing. It is not an easy sport to learn at the beginning. I always struggled to understand how to row. When you play football or basketball, you could transfer skills across. For rowing, there was nothing that was transferable. However, rowing is the sport that rewards perseverance the most and therefore, do not stop trying. Keep pushing yourself to be better.
WR: What do you do when you’re not rowing?
MS: Eat!! Listen to music and watch films and TV. I have a young sister (2 years old) and she gets a lot of attention when I am not rowing. She tires me out more than a rowing session.