He started a rowing club in Iraq and forged a national rowing program from scratch in rugged, landlocked Afghanistan.
In June 2012, on the western outskirts of Kabul, a group of Taliban fighters strapped with explosives stormed a lakeside resort popular with foreigners and wealthy Afghans. Incensed by rumors of drinking, dancing, and prostitution, they shot diners at their tables and rounded up hostages, with some guests leaping into Lake Qargha to escape. A 13-hour battle with Afghan and NATO forces left 25 people dead, including 15 hotel guests, several security guards, a policeman, and the militants.
Not the best place to introduce a sport favored by America’s privileged class, but it’s on these waters, not far from the bullet-scarred Spozhmai Hotel, that a strapping blond American named Matt Trevithick wants to launch a national rowing program. In a mountainous, war-torn country with no history of open-water sports and a simmering hostility toward the West, the 6-foot-4 oarsman would seem to have his work cut out for him. But Trevithick doesn’t worry about things the way most people do.
“The Taliban were attacking a specific target, a hotel believed to be hosting a party with alcohol,” says Trevithick (CGS’06, CAS’08), who has lived in Kabul for the past two and a half years. “Their attacks are almost always about sending messages. What message does massacring athletes send? Afghans are very proud of their national athletes.”
A competitive rower with a silver medal from the 2008 Head of the Charles Regatta, Trevithick understands the thrill of athletic pride. Several of his BU boat mates rowed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and one brought home gold from last summer’s London games. But more important, Trevithick understands that making Afghan rowing a reality is going to take the right partners and a lot of coordination and effort. And, apparently, the capacity to dream big. Trevithick says he plans to teach Afghan athletes not only how to catch and drive, square and feather, but also to execute all of those things at the Olympic level, perhaps as early as the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Afghanistan has tense relations with all its neighbors, some of whom they consider meddlesome,” says Trevithick. “Pakistan and Iran have rowing programs, and I’ve assured the Afghans that we will start beating them very shortly.”
Thomas Barfield, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology and president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, thinks Trevithick may have a chance.
“Afghans are keen on all kinds of competitive sports, even sports that have no previous tradition in the country,” says Barfield, director of BU’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilizations. “The Afghan who won an Olympic medal in tae kwon do is a hero, and the Afghan cricket team became a popular focus of attention when it beat many established teams in other countries.”
Trevithick, a 28-year-old native of Hingham, Massachusetts, moved to Kabul in 2010 to take a communications job at the American University of Afghanistan, one of several upstart academes in the region modeled on the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, which offer Western-style education and have been known to groom future leaders.
Sheila Stephens-Desbans, development manager for the International Federation of Rowing Associations (FISA), had met Trevithick at the 2011 World Championships in Bled, Slovenia, and knew he was working in Kabul. She emailed him with a request: there seemed to be interest in a formal rowing program in Afghanistan, and she had a contact name. Would Trevithick mind looking into it?
“FISA’s main priority is to make rowing a universally practiced sport,” Stephens-Desbans says. “We want as many countries as possible practicing either Olympic rowing or a form of traditional rowing that is appropriate in the local environment.”
With his easy smile and a palpable energy barely contained by his placid, lanky exterior, Trevithick was, Stephens-Desbans knew, the right man for the job. After all, he’d just pulled off a similar feat in Iraq.
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