1964: Pulling Together, Past Politics and War — Engeman and Iraqi Crew
by Rebecca Barns
Bill Engeman ’64 pulled his first strokes rowing crew in high school. After some classmates told him he wasn’t tough enough for the sport, he showed up for the team and proved them wrong. He loved the physical and mental challenge, the exacting demands, the beauty of gliding on the water.
At Brown University he rowed from 1957–61 and became captain of the varsity crew. He was eventually inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame, the first oarsman to be so honored.
After attending law school, he practiced employment and labor law for three decades at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rowing remained a passion, and he encouraged others to try it, coaching them in his spare time. He helped establish a number of rowing clubs and was instrumental in organizing 15 national collegiate rowing championships.
Three years ago Engeman read about a young Iraqi man who risked his life to row on the Tigris River in war-torn Iraq. At night that rower was one of thousands of security guards who have made Baghdad a safer place. That kind of determination got Engeman’s attention. Though he was half a world away and the logistics were daunting, he set his sights on meeting that fellow and helping him.
“It wasn’t just that the young man was rowing in difficult circumstances,” says Engeman. “It’s the attitude of these guys and what they have shown us.” Inspired by the film Invictus, which told the story of a South African rugby team that helped a country to heal, Engeman thought rowing could help Iraqis pull together, past the politics and war that dominated their lives.
He traveled to the 2009 World Rowing Championships in Poland, where he met with Iraqi rowing officials, and they began to put together the resources needed to bring coaching and support to the Iraqi athletes. With assistance from the U.S. State Department, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Rowing Federation, he and Bruce Smith, head of Community Rowing in Boston, Mass., traveled to Lake Dokan, 200 miles north of Baghdad, a relatively serene place to train compared to the Tigris.
Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish rowers came from near and far, setting aside their differences for the chance to improve their skills. They went through their paces on the lake and practiced with indoor rowing machines called ergometers, or “ergs.” Over the course of several days Engeman, Smith, and Abdul Salam Dawood of the Iraqi Rowing and Canoe Federation assessed the skill and physical condition of the Iraqi national team. The rowers’ skill level received high marks; their fitness level needed work.
Engeman and Smith helped bring six of the rowers and two coaches to the U.S. last fall to help them train for the 2010 Asian Games in China, and looking beyond that, the London Olympics in 2012. For six weeks the Iraqi rowers trained in Boston; in Princeton, with the U.S. national team; and in Cincinnati, Bill Engeman’s home turf.
In between training sessions there was time for the Iraqis to connect with Americans in ways that transcend the numbing effects of war.
On the Charles River they crewed eight-man sculls with U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq and taught the Americans the basics of the sport. At an elementary school near Cincinnati, the athletes showed students how they train on an erg and participated in a two-way question and answer session, mostly about sports. The children wrote down wishes for the athletes, folded them into origami boats, and gave them all away with handshakes.
Weeks later rower Haidar Hamarasheid took home Iraq’s first-ever medal in the Asian Games with a bronze in the men’s single scull. Haidar Nawzad and Hamzah Hussein Jebur are considered the team’s best hope to compete at the London games. (Iraq has participated in 12 Olympics and has only one medal in any sport—for weightlifting in 1960.)
Nawzad and Hussein returned to training on the Tigris River, crossing multiple security checkpoints to and from their homes. Sometimes their training area is so restricted that they have to row in tight circles if they row at all. But they are determined. Nawzad, often the spokesman for the group, points out the most compelling thing about the challenge. “Being at your best at something gives a man hope.”
Engeman was recently honored as the 2010 U.S. Rowing Association Man of the Year for his contributions to the sport. He humbly accepted the honor, but true to form immediately shifted focus back to his intrepid Iraqi friends. He will travel to Iraq again to see the Rowing Championship on the Tigris River in May. “My wife, Nancy, is quite a fan, too,” he said. "She’s making plans for us to attend the London 2012 Olympics.”
With more hard work and a bit of luck, the Iraqi team will be there, too.