How a once-obese guy rowed across the Atlantic Ocean

By Janice Rodrigues

Omar Nour’s life story reads like something out of a movie. He was born in Egypt, grew up in Switzerland and did his higher education in the US. While he was 29, working as an entrepreneur, he signed up for a triathlon. Today, he is a professional triathlete and one of the first Arabs to row 5000kms across the Atlantic Ocean — what is widely considered the world’s toughest row. It should come as no surprise that there is a documentary based on his ocean adventures.Now, Omar Nour is adding another feather to his cap, as a trainer for people of determination in the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. After all, who better to give advice on working hard, believing in yourself and overcoming challenges than a man who has been through it all? Excerpts from the interview:

When you signed up for your first triathlon, you weighed over 100kg. How tough was it?

I was 29 years old at the time and after ripping my pants while getting into my car (by just bending over)I decided I needed to do something. At the time, a friend was doing a triathlon, so I asked him to sign me up. Turns out I was grossly under-informed about what a triathlon. But I wanted to commit to it. When I began training for my first race, I started to shed weight, and it was a great feeling. People questioned me, and it filled me with doubt. I call these people ‘naysayers’. My first triathlon experience was amazing! It hurt like crazy, but I was smiling from ear to ear.

After a year of doing triathlons, I decided I wanted to become a professional triathlete and go to the Olympic Games… you can imagine the negative responses I got from the ‘naysayers’. I was told it’s impossible and that I’m too old and too fat, but I believed in myself so I set myself goals, and by the age of 31, I earned my pro-card as a triathlete, coming in 10th overall.

It puts me in a great position to now be a part of the Special Olympics. Working with people of determination has me hooked. I first started by running a clinic for athletes and it was incredible! These athletes have had obstacles in front of them their whole lives, but they keep pushing and they work hard to prove that they can do anything! It’s an important message for people of determination because — despite all ‘naysayers’ — they must be able to say, “Nope. I’m going to make it happen”.

What do you think more people should know about exercise?

We always make time for things we enjoy, but the problem is we don’t see sports as something enjoyable. We see it as a chore. You can make sports fun by playing with friends or finding things you’re interested in. That initial hump is painful but nothing in life that’s worth doing comes easy.

Tell me about the Atlantic Challenge. And what made you to take on the ‘world’s toughest row’?

I broke my ankle two years out of the Olympics and then hurt two disks in my back eight months before the Rio Olympics. While recovering, I was diagnosed with diabetes. That was when Omar Samra (the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest) asked if I was interested in rowing across the Atlantic and I agreed. The doctors thought I was nuts!

The Atlantic challenge was a roller coaster. We set off on December 14, 2017, there was only two of us it was part of a big race against 28 other teams. We were trying to go for a world record but we found ourselves floating 1000km out from the shore with crazy waves and wind and then capsising. We spent day and night trying to reach the other side thinking we were going to die. There were 10-metre waves, 80km/h winds and we were floating in 18 degree waters, while in a great white shark hunting territory — with no outer communication and no life raft.

Were you terrified?

It’s interesting. I’m a professional athlete, but I’ve never been put in a position where it’s a matter of life or death. When you are about to lose a race, it bothers you but you don’t die. When everything was happening, I felt like time had slowed down somehow. Even when things were at their worst, there was a voice at the back of my mind telling me that it’s going to be fine. The fear was there but it wasn’t paralysing or overwhelming. I didn’t realise how hyped up my body was until I was trying to dive under the boat to get some things, and I realised that I couldn’t hold my breath because my adrenaline was through the roof. So, yes, there were definitely moments of real fear. And, today, there is a documentary on the incident. Beyond the Raging Sea was featured at Cannes Film Festival this year, which was quite exciting. One minute you’re honestly afraid you’re going to die and the next you’re at a film festival!

Why do you think it is important for a story like that to be out there?

I think it sets a good example for anyone facing challenges, especially people of determination. You need to believe in yourself. That should be your fuel. I’m so glad that I did it as it opened a new door for me. I always aim high. So we’re going to go for it all, the film festival, an Oscar, why not?

What do you think has been your biggest accomplishment?

That’s a very difficult question. There have been a lot of things in my life that I’m proud of. I would say that the most important was learning to not to give up. That allowed me to get into sports to begin with, to overcome my injuries, and to keep on going.

What is it like working with athletes in the upcoming Special Olympics?

It is really rewarding, and I know that one probably shouldn’t focus on the feeling it gives you, but it is so overwhelmingly positive, I can’t stress it enough. You learn more from them than what you can teach them. I loved the contagious positivity and the outlook on life that people of determination have, especially the athletes. The Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi is coming in March 2019 and it is something that involves the entire community. We need about 20,000 volunteers so I’m encouraging everyone to get involved. The Summer Camp at Dubai Sports World has also been great — we introduced people of determination to different sports, aiming to bring awareness and also nurture potential athletes here to help them go on and build a legacy.

What are your future plans?

That is the million-dollar question. I want to continue supporting the Special Olympics and getting involved as much as I can, as it is something very dear to my heart. It will break barriers and give more opportunities and acceptance to people of determination. It will change the entire outlook of how they are perceived, and in my opinion, that’s the most important thing. Supporting inclusion in the UAE is one of our goals.

I also have to make some decisions about my professional career. I’m somewhat semi- retired from the triathlons right now. So, the question is if I’m going to do the row again or go back to the triathlon. I’m giving myself a breather at the moment.

When people talk about having a near-death experience, they say it changes everything, but for me, that was not the case. I don’t think it changed a single thing. What it did was just change my perception about everything. I am still the same guy, I’m still as goofy and un-serious. I have more appreciation for everything though, and I would like to spend time with family and friends and then figure out my next steps. Hopefully it will be awesome.

Janice is a millennial who hates selfies and likes breaking stereotypes

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