It's a long way from Baghdad to Boston, but for six members of the Iraqi rowing team traveling to the Head of the Charles regatta on Oct. 24, the trek is just a piece in an even bigger journey. The double scullers and lightweight fours athletes, in the U.S. for six weeks of training, are the best of their nation's 60-man program. They normally train on the Tigris River, where soldiers used to mistake the aspiring Olympians for terrorists when they began rowing there six years ago. "They shot at us," Ahmed Abdul Salam recalls. These days the soldiers wave, though the rowers sometimes have to cancel practice if checkpoints near the river are closed.
With a $40,000 annual budget, the team of Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites more easily transcends religious barriers than financial ones. "Our first boats arrived without oars," recalls sculler Haeidr Nawzad. In 2008 the International Olympic Committee waived qualification standards for Nawzad and Hamzah Hussein Jebur, allowing them to row in the Beijing Olympics. They finished last in their double sculls heat. At next summer's world championships in Bled, Slovenia, the Iraqis will try to qualify two boats for the '12 Games. "We know how much we have to learn," says Nawzad, "but we have hope."