The remarkable rise of Kuwaiti Olympic rower Soaad Alfaqaan

As a rookie, she knows her Paris task is cut out, but that isn’t stopping her from dreaming big.

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The Olympics is full of astonishing stories of human achievements – notably because for many athletes, it represents the pinnacle of a lifetime of sporting endeavor. For Kuwaiti rower Soaad Alfaqaan, however, the journey from amateur to Olympian has been significantly fast.

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Alfaqaan began rowing in the gym in 2019 and only touched her oars on the water for the first time in 2021. But next month, she will be at the start line for the women’s single sculls event in France alongside the world’s best. Alfaqaan will become the first-ever Kuwaiti female rower to compete at the Olympics.

“I feel privileged and I think there’s a lot of emotion behind it,” she tells Al Arabiya English, just two days after having her Olympics spot confirmed. “Of course, I feel a sense of accomplishment and happiness. I feel a strong sense that if you set a goal and you work super hard towards it, nothing is unachievable.”

“But at the same time, it is stressful because there are a lot of eyes on me right now. It feels like pressure is already building up and then there’s that duty aspect, where I just want to do well for all the people who helped get me here.”

Finding peace on coastal waters

Alfaqaan, whose full-time job is that of an assistant professor of biological sciences at Kuwait University, first fell in love with rowing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was on the recommendation of a student that she decided to take up the sport and Alfaqaan immediately found peace on the coastal waters off Kuwait City’s Messilah Beach.

“I think as an overthinker whose mind is just constantly chattering and analyzing, rowing is the only thing where it just all goes silent and everything just falls into place,” Alfaqaan explains.

“It truly saved me because at that time, I had just moved to Kuwait, which is the country of my parents, but one I had never lived in. I felt lost and uncertain about my identity,” she told Al Arabiya English.

“Rowing came into my life, and it has helped me discover myself and meet some amazing people. It has given me a sense of purpose in my physical life and personal life.”

Alfaqaan smiles as she recalls her earliest forays into the Arabian Gulf, admitting that she flipped the boat on her very first outing, but as her proficiency quickly improved, the pastime evolved into a near-daily ritual.

She sought out more structured guidance and found further gains working with Tunisian coach Wajdi Tourai, who had helped Kuwaiti rower Abdulrahman al-Fadhel qualify for the men’s single sculls at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Finding the right coach

“My coach is amazing,” Alfaqaan said. “He’s a very young, cool guy whom I appreciate. As a coach, he has overcome a lot of obstacles training in Kuwait – mainly in the sense that we don’t get to train on water as much as the other rowers,” the athlete said.

“I owe a lot of my progress to him because he’s been able to kind of crack that system of translating indoor training into performance on the water. And now he has two Olympians.”
Feeling empowered by her improvement, Alfaqaan began to enter international regattas.

Last year, she represented Kuwait at the Asian Games in Hangzhou and in April this year, she competed in the Asian and Oceanian Olympic Qualification Regatta in Chungju, South Korea. She also qualified for the 2023 World Coastal Championships in Italy.

Her performances in the events captured the attention of the sport’s global governing body, World Rowing, which can award a certain number of Olympic ‘Universality Places’ – spots reserved for countries that are usually under-represented at the Games.

Last Friday, Alfaqaan was informed by Kuwaiti Olympic Committee board member Fatema Hayat that she had been chosen to compete in Paris.

“She phoned me up on Friday and said, ‘Hey, are you ready for some good news?’ Alfaqaan recalls. She told me ‘You’re going to Paris, it’s official’. It is difficult to explain the feeling, but it was followed by 20 minutes of me just sitting in my car absorbing it all, which was then followed by 20 more minutes of tears.”

Dad – the ‘No 1 fan’

“Then I told my family and friends. I think my father had started packing his bag before I did! He’s super excited and wants to be there to support me and provide the snacks as needed. He is my number one fan,” she said.

Alfaqaan, who has coincidentally lived in four Olympic host cities – Stockholm, London, Los Angeles, and Athens – in her life, is now ramping up her preparations for Paris 2024. Even under normal circumstances, rowing is a supremely tough solo sport, and the intensity of Olympic competition is daunting.

Soaad Alfaqaan. (Supplied)
Soaad Alfaqaan. (Supplied)

“Training is tough – hours and hours and hundreds and thousands of kilometers. It is lots of very blistered hands and aching backs, but now, more than ever, I know that hard training is what I need,” she said.

“I’m going to be on the water at the most watched sporting event on the planet, competing against women who are heroes to any rower. It’s fear mixed with excitement and as the race gets closer, but I think the fear will outgrow the excitement.”

“I know that I won’t be able to keep up with them, given my short lifespan in rowing, but just to be on the same waters as them and in the same event – I’m going to be dreaming about it until I’m fully gray.”

Alfaqaan has been well-supported in her athletic aspirations by her employers at Kuwait University, though she has yet to officially reveal news of her Olympic qualification to her students.
“That has reminded me, I need to put in my vacation days at work,” she laughs.

Among the rawest rowers

“My students know about my rowing because I had to tell them I was going to the Olympic qualifiers in Korea as we moved some classes,” Alfaqaan explained.

“Some of them saw the interviews I did on YouTube too and have asked me about those – though it might be because they just wanted to burn some time in a lecture! But whenever they ask me, I share my rowing stories with them – though I always tend to keep those to the end of class.”

With only two previous competitions behind her in the narrow, Olympic-style rowing boat, Alfaqaan will likely be among the rawest rowers on the water in France, but with training camps planned for this month in Uzbekistan and France, just before the Games, the Kuwaiti rower is confident she will be ready for the Olympics.

“Whenever I have the chance to train on water, I am super focused,” Alfaqaan said. “I do see a really big difference through these camps, so I’m expecting to sharpen up a bit.”
“Stamina-wise and endurance-wise, I am peaking. I feel like I will be ready to put in my best-ever performance on a boat at the Olympics,” she said.

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