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Human to Hero: Fast faith - Muslim rower's Olympic dilemma

By Caroline Cheese, for CNN
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
Mohamed Sbihi -- nicknamed Moe -- was born near London and is of Moroccan descent. He was discovered by the British team's talent identification programme while at school in 2003. Mohamed Sbihi -- nicknamed Moe -- was born near London and is of Moroccan descent. He was discovered by the British team's talent identification programme while at school in 2003.
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Moe goes for gold
Chasing Germany
Made in Morocco
Hitting the heights
Stepping into the eight
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British rower Mohamed Sbihi was born in Britain and has a Moroccan father
  • Sbihi is a practicing Muslim and will delay his Ramadan fast to compete in London
  • He was picked up at the age of 15 by British rowing's talent-spotting scheme
  • At six foot eight inches, Sbihi is the tallest member of the British crew

(CNN) -- The prospect of competing in the 2012 London Olympics left British rower Mohamed Sbihi with a big dilemma.

As a practicing Muslim, Sbihi, who has Moroccan family, should be starting his month-long Ramadan fast on July 21, abstaining from food and water during daylight hours.

But it clashes with what should be the pinnacle of his career so far when he competes in the British men's eight at the Olympics on home water.

A compromise was needed.

"My faith is really important to me," Sbihi said in an interview with CNN's Human to Hero series. "I make sure I say the first verse of the Koran before every single race, whether it be out loud or in my head.

Human to Hero: Mohamed Sbihi

"I spoke to my family here, spoke to my family back home in Morocco, and at the end of the day I'm making the right decision for me, and that's to postpone my fast."

It isn't only his faith that will inspire him. The devoted Arsenal football fan will also turn to music to fire him up before he races.

"I like to listen to quite violent hip-hop rap kinda of stuff before I get on the water," he said. "I do listen to one song: Eminem feat. Lil Wayne -- No Love."

Football fan

Born in Britain to an English mother and Moroccan father, Sbihi had one sport on his mind when he was 15 -- and it wasn't rowing.

Sbihi -- nicknamed "Moe" by his friends -- spent as much time as possible on the football pitch, but the visit of British rowing's talent identification scouts to his school in Surbiton persuaded him to try a different pursuit.

"I wasn't really for the idea... I just wanted to play football," he said. "The coach that was testing at the time saw me and said, 'Make sure that boy is there.' I had the raw parameters to be a really successful rower."

That same year, he won Under-15 gold at the British indoor championships and he went on to win bronze in the men's four at the Under-23 World Championships.

Hitting the heights

Now the 24-year-old is preparing to compete in his first Olympics -- and he shouldn't be too hard to spot.

At six foot eight inches (2.03 meters), Sbihi is the tallest member of the British eight -- although his physique is not unusual in rowing.

"If I wasn't a rower, I'd love to be a basketball player. I love basketball, I love watching it," he said.

"And basketball you kind of fit in. It's the same thing with rowing, you just sit here and everyone is tall. And you're like, 'Is this the land of the giants?' "

Size matters

Being the biggest member of a crew is not necessarily an advantage, Sbihi says, so keeping his weight down is crucial.

"When it comes to summer racing I'm the biggest guy -- I can also easily be the heaviest guy. By me being lighter, and keeping the same power, it would be beneficial to the crew."

Gold target

Sbihi moved up to the eight crew in 2010, having raced in the pair and the four at youth level, and Britain looks set to renew its rivalry with Germany at the Games.

The British eight finished second behind the dominant Germans at the 2010 and 2011 World Championships.

However, Sbihi isn't interested in collecting another silver medal.

"I'm in this to win," he said. "I only want one thing and that is an Olympic medal. I went four years not winning anything and if I just win that gold medal ... I'll be happy. My legacy would be that gold medal."

Britain's rowing legends

If he does win gold, Sbihi will follow in the footsteps of some of the biggest names in British rowing.

Steve Redgrave won titles at five successive Olympics, while Matthew Pinsent won four in a row and James Cracknell won gold in the coxless four in 2000 and 2004.

"Pincent, Cracknell and Redgrave they were able to do that for 20 years, 16 years and 12 years," Sbihi says.

"That's pretty impressive. It's unimaginable for me to be able to try to better Redgrave."

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