ROWING: ROW COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Published November 7, 2021
Muhammad Shahzad in the ‘indoor rowing’ competition at Gold Coast, Australia in 2018 where he won two bronzes
Muhammad Shahzad in the ‘indoor rowing’ competition at Gold Coast, Australia in 2018 where he won two bronzes

They say there is a woman behind every successful man. But this man is the one behind two very successful young women. Muhammad Shahzad is father of Pakistan’s top female badminton champion, Olympian Mahoor Shahzad, and well-known international gold-medalist power-lifter Rabia Shahzad.

But Muhammad Shahzad, now in his sixties, is more than simply the father of two top athletes. He himself has made an international name for himself in rowing; his most recent achievement being a silver medal in the British Virtual Rowing Championship this past September.

Shahzad didn’t start out as a rower though. In his youth, he dreamed of becoming a top-class player in the sport one of his daughters now excels at: badminton.

“I am now six feet, two and a half inches tall, but when I started at only 15, I was five feet 11 inches and I used to weigh 100kg, the most undesirable physique for a player of badminton,” says Shahzad sheepishly.

Shahzad had actually got into playing badminton after a serious accident and subsequent surgery when he was only 14. “They had to take out one-fourth of my pancreas to save my life. But I recovered fully after that, thanks to badminton. Still, as I have mentioned already, I didn’t have the body for it, and was not really winner material,” he smiles.

“I remember working very hard at my game,” he says. “I also remember being so disheartened after losing a match, at the Baldia Jr Badminton Championship in 1982, that I ran away from the juniors’ camp. Things were not going my way, not like I wanted them to at least, until I met this German lady, Ulrike Angne from the German Consulate, during another badminton camp in 1983.”

At 60-plus, Muhammad Shahzad is more than the father of two of Pakistan’s most well-known female athletes. He is also an internationally recognised rower himself, and it’s clear where his daughters’ passion for sport comes from

The German woman suggested to Shahzad that, given his physique, he try taking up rowing.

The problem, Shahzad says, was that, around that time, Pakistan didn’t even have any rowing boats. But Angne persuaded the German Consulate to donate the boats. “She got three to four boats initially, which she placed near the PNSC [Pakistan National Shipping Corporation] building, as it was near the Chinna Creek, an ideal place for rowing. That place today is a parking lot,” he says.

With the boats procured, they next needed a proper place to house them. “Angne found a warehouse or paint shop, which could be converted into a proper shed for the boats, though it needed work,” he recalls. “We had a vision, but not much money. We begged for free bricks from a company at Hub when we found them just lying there and, once we got them, we also ourselves helped in the construction of the shed, which became our rowing club.”

With daughters Mahoor (left) and Rabia
With daughters Mahoor (left) and Rabia

With the platform of the club established, the boys of the club would soon begin to compete in rowing championships, starting with one in Hong Kong in 1985. Soon, as the sport grew in popularity, with several teams coming up, the Punjab government also ordered its own rowing boats, to introduce rowing in that province. Meanwhile, Shahzad had joined the Karachi Port Trust rowing team, followed by his founding the PNSC rowing team, and moving to it, winning several laurels nationally and internationally.

But, at the same time, Shahzad was also working towards building a business career and wasn’t able to give all his time to the sport. By 1987, he had also earned a degree in engineering. The work he had done in building a shed for the first rowing boats that arrived in Pakistan, had helped him understand construction work, which he wanted to get into seriously. But he also didn’t want to completely break ties with rowing.

After leaving active rowing sometime in 1992, he served as coach for other rowers. In 1993, he took the Pakistan junior team to China for the Asian Junior Competition, where they won bronze. Later, he also served as Chairman Material Commission for the Pakistan Rowing Federation (PRF) and also as its Associate Secretary.

“Later, I got very busy with my construction business. I also got very unfit. Then a time came when I couldn’t even run two rounds at Karachi’s National Coaching Centre. I remembered earlier doing seven to eight rounds there easily,” he says.

“In 2004, I imported an indoor rowing machine for myself, to try and get back into shape. I weighed 108kg at the time, and indoor rowing, running and skipping brought me down to 80kg. My old sportsman’s discipline kicked in. I never stopped working out or rowing after that, even for a day.

“In 2014, there was an indoor rowing competition in Islamabad for rowers who were 40-plus. I was 50-plus and I walked away with gold there,” he says with some pride. “Two years later, I went to the USA and bagged two gold and one bronze medal in a competition for 50 to 60-year-olds. I was 55-plus then.

“In 2018, I took two bronzes in the Pan Pacific Masters indoor rowing event, in Queensland, Australia. The following year, I took another four bronzes in the XVII Australian Masters. I have won rowing championships in Australia, USA, and the UK,” he points out.

Shahzad now has his eye on the World Indoor Rowing Championship, to be held in Hamburg, Germany, in February 2022.

“But,” he says, “indoor rowing I started for my own fitness. And now that I am fit enough, I want to get back into the real thing. I want to get into outdoor rowing once again.

“As a young man, as I followed my love for rowing, I also had certain other goals in mind for myself, which I couldn’t turn away from — I wanted to study, I wanted earn well, I wanted to take care of my family, my children. And now that all is well there, I am free to concentrate on rowing again,” he says.

He also often suggests rowing to his sporting daughters for strengthening their wrists, as you need strong wrists for both badminton as well as power-lifting. He also wants to do something to get more people into boating activities in Karachi.

“We are so lucky to have a choice at hand of areas for conducting boating activities, be it rowing, canoeing, sailing, yachting, or anything else. There is the Arabian Sea, the creek areas, Chinna Creek, the Marina Club waters. Why not start healthy activities here?” It’s clear where Mahoor and Rabia’s love and passion for sports comes from.

“I have also been building boats now,” says Shahzad. “I had two catamarans built locally. I can have more boats built here, I can also import boats. Let’s use this water for different kinds of boating.”

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 7th, 2021

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