Rowing: Barbershop boy cuts the mustard

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The Independent Online

It would be fair to say that rowing, as a sport in which to excel at Olympic level, didn't feature highlyin the imagination of the Kingston-on-Thames schoolboy Mohamed Sbihi. It was always asumed that Sbihi, the son of a Moroccan-born father, also named Mohamed, who owned a barbershop off Regency Street in London's Victoria, would one day go into the family trade.

"The only interest I had in rowing was when I flicked on the TV and the Olympics was on," herecalls. "And I remember returning over Hammersmith Bridge on the way home from the shop on Saturdays. One year it was crowded with people, and I wondered what was going on, and then discovered it was the Boat Race."

But that view of an alien sport all changed with a visit by representatives of British rowing's Start programme to Sbihi's Hollyfield School in Surbiton in 2003, on the search for raw potential. Sbihi, who, at 22, now stands almost 6ft 8in, could hardly fail to make an impression.

"They came round my school, where rowing wasn't a sport, did some physical tests, and a couple of weeks later I got a phone call saying I had the potential to start training," he says. His father and British mother, Jennifer, who works for M&S, were initially taken aback. "I remember there was a meeting at my house, with the head of the Start programme who told them: 'Your son could be a world champion.' I didn't believe it, and I don't think they could believe it, either. Both have been really encouraging. My dad's really proud. He tells most of his customers and has photos of me on the wall of the shop."

From barbershop quartet to Great Britain's gold medal-winning eight at the first of the World Cup series in Bled earlier this year, Sbihi's transformation has been remarkable.

Initially, he admits, his commitment was thoroughly examined. Pain tends to do that to you. "The first couple of months were hard work, and that was just doing three sessions a week," he says. "I did question it a lot in the first year but now I enjoy it. We train hard to make sure we race hard."

The effort has been worthwhile. From that first year, winning gold at the GB indoor rowing championships in the under-15 category, the Molesey Boat Club oarsman will, at the end of this month, be a member of the British eight challenging for gold in the world championships at Karapiro Lake, New Zealand. The fact that he is the first Muslim to represent GB rowing at senior level yields him profound pride, though it does confer its complications. From 11 August to 9 September, he should have been fasting during Ramadan. That means no eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset, every day for 30 days, which is a particularly challenging proposition for a rower who, at the pinnacle of his training regime, needs to consume 6,000 calories a day.

"My dad fasted, so did all my relatives back in Morocco, but I decided to postpone it until I come back from the worlds," he explains. "I can fast then. It'll be the same for the next two years that I won't necessarily fast at the times I should be fasting.

"I have full confidence in my ability to get through it. I've done it in the past and have come out of it sometimes feeling stronger. But this was just before the world championships, and I had to ask myself whether it was the best thing for me to be fasting when there's seven other guys in the boat wondering whether I'm going to be performing at my maximum, or whether I'm going to be keeling over in the boat."

Following that gold medal in Bled, the crew secured a bronze at World Cup regattas in Munich and Lucerne, behind the world champions Germany and Australia, which, he says, is an accurate gauge of their progress. "[Lucerne] was the big one for me. We were within touching distance of the Germans the whole way. Afterwards I said to the guys: 'I believe we can be world champions'." To do so would also make a psychological impression on their rivals less than two years out from the London Games.

Sbihi currently rows at No 7, traditionally the buffer between the stroke and the rest of the crew, and who helps set the rhythm. "I like to talk a lot, and give the crew confidence because I'm the biggest guy in the boat," he says. It says a lot for his development and assertive nature that he vies for vocal input with 38-year-old Greg Searle. Sbihi was four when Searle was claiming Olympic gold with his brother Jonny and cox Garry Herbert in the coxed pairs at the 1992 Olympics.

Searle, says Sbihi, is a "really big influence on the crew – always so positive and passionate about the sport". "Moe", as he is known, has also been inspired by Michael Johnson's book Slaying the Dragon and his guidance on preparation and focus.

Sbihi, who has also studied for a sports science degree at St Mary's University College, is unsure of his eventual future. He could even revert to the original plan of joining his father. "I've spent so much time there. Even practised on my dad's head. Not that he's got much hair on it! It's one of those things that I've watched so much, if I wanted to do it, it'd come quite quickly to me, hopefully."

But for the moment the only cut-throat plans he has in mind are ones involving Great Britain's rowing opponents.