Grassroots to glory - Mohamed Sbihi
The Team GB flag bearer who nearly didn't make it to Tokyo...
Mohamed Sbihi had considered hanging up his oar after the postponement of last year’s Tokyo Olympic Games – but the arrival of his son Idris seven months ago turned his world upside down. Born to a British mother and Moroccan father in Kingston in Surrey – the 33-year-old has gone on to have an illustrious and medal-laden career, winning bronze at London 2012 before going on to claim Olympic gold at Rio 2016 in the coxless fours. Having dedicated those gongs to his parents and wife Rachael, this time was about winning for himself in Tokyo – up until the arrival of Idris sparked a change in his perspective. Juggling training with the demands of a new-born during a global pandemic was not without its challenges, but Sbihi has put everything on the line in a bid to bring back gold for his young family.
It was not always about rowing for Sbihi though as he flirted with both football and basketball – his 6ft 8in frame appealing for both sports – before he was picked up at a talent-spotting programme and asked to join the National Lottery-funded GB Rowing World Class Start programme aged 15.
“My perspective has changed – it’s become a lot more tired,” joked Sbihi who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
“Before Idris was born my biggest stress outside of rowing was cooking dinner. Now everything I do revolves around him, but knowing I am going back to that does make a hard day’s rowing a lot easier. At the start of the Tokyo 2020 cycle I wanted to prove I could do it myself, but now it’s more about being successful for Idris. He won’t remember it, but if I became an Olympic champion while he’s alive that’d be pretty cool.”
Sbihi’s determination has been redoubled by the reality Tokyo could be his final Games. He has been at the forefront of British rowing for over a decade and retirement is looming large. The backing of one of the most successful coaches in Olympic history is not a bad way of staying motivated, though. Sbihi has been entrusted as Britain’s crew-maker – a role held by Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the past – by legendary head coach Jurgen Grobler.
The German has coached a crew to a gold medal at the last seven Olympic Games and his storied methods include pushing athletes hard in punishing altitude at Sierra Nevada. Sbihi revealed the demands of the role of making the boat go faster, insisting Grobler gives Britain an edge that no other nation on the start-line in Tokyo can cope with.
“Jurgen has been able to get his crews to perform on the day for such a long time in Olympic finals,” said Sbihi, who has seen the fortunes of Team GB transform over the past two decades through funding raised by National Lottery players, helping Britain become one of the best sporting nations in the world. Often the interim years have been successful, but there have been years he would have not won the World Championships, not been the lead boat and had to make drastic calls. It’s hard to believe in the end goal of gold when you’ve not won at the Worlds, but Jurgen will always make you believe it’s possible on the day. That is so empowering. He’s given me the role of crew-maker, and it’s hard because I’ve not always been performing in the manner I’d want. You can’t always be the number one performer. Darren Fletcher was not the best player in the United team but he was always the one that Alex Ferguson relied on. Jurgen’s made me feel like that guy, the leader of the squad who enthuses other people to get them performing. He called me instantly after the postponement was announced. His experience will be vital for us and something many nations won’t have, so that’s a positive for us.”
Sbihi met his wife Rachael – also a rower during her youth – during their university days at St Mary’s in Twickenham, while he also competed for local boat club Molesey. Rachael gave an insight into Moe’s life away from the water and he insisted he deserves to succeed in Tokyo after putting his life on hold to train and compete.
“We met while I was at university, what struck me about him was his determination but deep down what drew us together with his kindness,” said Rachael.
“Moe is not only a brilliant father, but how he pushes himself and strives to do better leaves me in awe.“It’s not a sacrifice for us as a family as this is our routine – this is normal for us. I know how much effort he has put in; I know how much he has had to juggle and just hope it goes so well for him in Tokyo – he deserves it.”
Fellow National Lottery-funded Olympic champion rower Helen Glover made her return to the water earlier this year following a break to have children, and Sbihi has sought her advice on how to juggle both commitments wherever possible. He said: “It’s been hard to speak to Helen regularly because we’ve been in separate bubbles, but we agreed that you start smelling your child’s poo everywhere after a while – even on your kit! It’s not really there and it’s probably a sign that you’ve been hanging around your kids’ nappies too long when you can’t get the smell out of your head! What she’s done in terms of coming back to the sport after four years is incredible. I think it’s easier as a dad because young children are so dependent on their mums, and I have so much respect for her.”
Sbihi now faces the prospect of an extended period away from his son, and he acknowledges he will miss several milestones as Idris continues to grow at a rapid rate. But he also accepts the sacrifices he must make as an elite athlete gunning for Olympic gold and has no doubts Rachael will keep him up to date with a swathe of photos and videos.
“As much as lockdown has been tough, the real test will come when I have to go away and leave Rach to look after him on her own,” said Sbihi, who is also a three-time world champion.
“I know there are a lot of people in worse situations than us, but it will be hard on her, and me because I know he will change while I’m gone - he’ll grow and he’ll learn new skills. “But we knew this was part of the process and I have just got to go out there and do my best to win another medal, which is what Rach has supported me to do over the last 12 years. We’ll be on FaceTime regularly and stay in touch, and with the time difference Idris might actually help us out if he fancies a night feed!”