row2k Features
Interview
Wisconsin's Tassneem Arafa
April 3, 2024
Erik Dresser, row2k.com

Tassneem Arafa racing at U23 Championships

row2k concludes our 2024 spring collegiate racing interview series today with an interview with Wisconsin rower Tassneem Arafa. We chat with her on how she found her way to Madison from Egypt, racing at U23s, and more.

row2k - How did you get your start in rowing?

Tassneem Arafa - I swam for 11 years. I enjoyed swimming and competing in it so much. It was something I never got tired of. Swimming was more than a sport for me. At age 14, I decided to wear a hijab for my religion, and there is something in Islam that says, "If you leave or quit something for God or to make you a better Muslim, God will give you something better." That’s what I believed in, and here I am now, rowing at D1 school.

row2k - What led you to the idea to come and study in the United States and how did you find Wisconsin?

Tassneem Arafa - My coach in high school mentioned after a race that I didn’t do well and said I didn’t have enough time on the water because the national team didn’t give us boats to practice. It was because the Egyptian team wasn’t the best at treating their athletes. He said that you deserve better and could have the opportunities if you did well enough to get an athletic scholarship in America. Little did I know that the government had done a lot of construction, which resulted in drying our lake in Alexandria, Egypt. After that, I didn’t know what to do, but my coach told me we would use what we had to get the best results. What we had was an ergometer, so I erged for 3 years straight and won almost all of the championships in indoor rowing in Egypt.

In 2019, I won four gold medals in indoor rowing; after that season, my sister Nour Elhoda mentioned the world indoor rowing championship to my coach, then he mentioned it after the 2019 season that let’s put the 2020 world indoor rowing championship in Paris as our goal. My goal was to go sub 7 in Paris, and I got pretty close at 7:01.8. I got 4th in the 2k race and 3rd in the 500 races. After that, a couple of universities reached out to me, and my cousin 'Misho,' who swam at Indiana and graduated in 2020, helped me write emails to the coaches.

I had a lot of meetings with universities, and a big part of my uncomfortable feeling with them was that I didn’t feel anyone understood where I was coming from, my situation, and assumed bad things about the Middle East. The fact that I wear a hijab made it harder for them to accept me. But I felt more welcomed, respected, and understood by Wisconsin when I had my first meeting on Zoom with coaches Bebe Bryans and Karly Laney. I made my decision to commit to Wisconsin.

row2k - What was the transition like from training in Egypt to being a full time student athlete?

Tassneem Arafa - I was not expected to say this, but it is easier to be a student-athlete in America than in Egypt. In Egypt, school and sports are not connected, so I had to make my own schedule and figure out how to fit in all the rowing practices. At Wisconsin, it is much easier to have a team to support you and teammates that have your back, wanting you to be the best version of yourself.

row2k - You raced at U23s this past summer in the EGY W2-, what was that experience like?

Tassneem Arafa - I wasn’t too happy about the process because it was very complicated, though I am glad I went through it because it taught me many things about myself. I had to switch sides for this race to happen, so a big part of the journey involved me trying to figure out how to row starboard. As for how we raced, I learned so much about myself racing in small boat after racing in eights the last two years. I didn’t have that much experience in small boats with the exception that I went to GRP in the summer of 2022 and raced the single at summer nationals. I was supposed to go to U23 Worlds that year [in Italy] in a single, but I had problems with the Italian embassy in the US, so I couldn’t race in 2022.

Arafa rowing for Wisconsin
Arafa rowing for Wisconsin

row2k - What is one key thing you learned racing this summer that will help you and your team the most this season and why?

Tassneem Arafa - One key that will help me and my teammates that I would like to say is this: it is so hard to row with someone that you don’t like because of their behavior. What I mean is, I believe that a good boat really cares about each other so much. Rowing is a team sport, and that is something that is the most challenging. Sometimes, in sports, people going against each other doesn't help, and just throwing a rock in the boat would end up sinking it. We don’t have to love each other, but I believe that if you’re friendly to all of your teammates, the team will get faster just because everyone cares and wants the best for you. Other than that, I would say that I learned a lot of technique that will translate well into big boats.

row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?

Tassneem Arafa - The sport of rowing is a representation of a lot of things that I find fascinating. In the boat, you have to be gentle to not check the boat at the catch or at the finish, but also you have to have so much power to move the boat, and it is hard to translate all the power you have on the erg to the water. Rowing is so related to nature, which is incredible to learn about. Your connection to the boat, the water, the wind, the waves; there is so much to deal with in one boat, one sport, which makes it hard to master, but it keeps you hungry for more.

Also, it looks so peaceful from the outside, but it hurts so much in every aspect, and one of the aspects is blisters and bloody handles. Another thing about rowing in a boat with more than one person is that the boat will only go somewhere if we are on the same page with everything: moving, breathing, pushing, and releasing together. It reminds me so much of the culture and religion I came from that you can never survive by yourself on this earth because this is how God intended for us to be. I always said you at least need a cow to survive.

row2k - What has been your most memorable race and why?

Tassneem Arafa - My most memorable race was in Florida last year, the Sunshine State race. I was 2 seat in the Varsity 8. I was observing Ramadan, and everyone was so friendly on the team, and the coaches gave me the support that I felt safe practicing my religion while also rowing and achieving my goals. We ended up getting 5th, but it was such a close race that I saw beast mode from my teammates that made me so proud to be in this race at that moment. Every other boat on the team medaled but were so pleased to have this fight in us. A week later, we had raced at the Big Ten Invite, and we did really well in the last race. My third favorite race memory is when I raced in the single at summer nationals. I had a lot of things happen to me before and during that made me feel worthless, but when I raced, I proved them wrong and learned so much about myself during this race. It is crucial to stay myself, and I am the only one responsible for how I feel about myself.

row2k - What are you studying at Wisconsin and do you have any plans for after graduation?

Tassneem Arafa - I am studying Global Health and Psychology. I plan to work with athletes in nutrition or psychology to help them think better about themselves or about issues related to public health and justice. I always wanted to make more comfortable sports clothes and competition sports clothes for Muslims, or any religious athlete, so they don't suffer wearing a lot of layers to fit the dress code for the race. I am currently struggling with my uni to race, and I want to make it easier for the next generation to feel safe and confident racing and still practicing their religion.

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