I first heard about Privel a couple months ago. I was busy scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and saw an article posted by our common friend, Esther Lofgren.

Esther is a rower and an Olympic gold medalist. She won the gold medal in the women’s eight at the 2012 Summer Games in London and we met the following year in Australia.

She shared an article on the Tokyo Olympics Games website about a Benin rower who had made history. I read the article (and the many others on him) before reaching out to hear his story directly.

It’s a story of a dream that was ignited many years ago and that continues to persevere despite all odds and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

I hope Privel’s story inspires you as much as it did me.


Over to you Privel

I discovered rowing with some friends at a summer camp in 2003. The camp offered different sports and activities and one of them was rowing. I decided to give it a try and thankfully, I was good at it. So the coach invited me to join the team and row at another event. He believed that I would be a good addition to the team, so I signed up and the rest is history.

Since then I have been rowing for 17 years but my dream to make it to the Olympics was much more recent.

Like all big dreams, it started off as only thought in 2012. One year after the Benin rowing federation was created. Once I could finally represent Benin at the international level, things really started to take off. I have gone from pushing the project alone to now having staff that supports me: a coach, a physical trainer, and a physiotherapist.

Laying the groundwork

My dream was clear and I needed to figure out how to make it happen.

Fortunately for me, FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron or World Rowing) sent Paul Etia Ndoumbe, a Cameroonian rower who was trying to qualify for Rio, to train in France.He was coached by a French coach in Rouen which is close to Caen, where I live. I knew the coach very well and I talked about my project with him. He mentioned that he had contacts at FISA who had helped the Cameroonian rower and that maybe they could help me.

In order to create the Benin rowing federation, I had to find someone in Benin who would take charge and set it up.

Once I got in touch with FISA, they then contacted the Ministry of Sports in Benin to ask them to create a national federation because there was an athlete ready to compete for the country internationally.

The Ministry of Sports in Benin chose the current president of the federation since he showed interest in creating the rowing federation. They knew that he did not know the sport but he saw it as a good opportunity to learn all about a new sport and help it grow in the country.

It was not easy at first. A family friend based in Benin and I, helped both sides communicate and facilitate the creation of the federation. We really had to emphasize to the officials in the federation, the importance of the deadlines. It was a big part of what I had to do at the beginning.

Spreading rowing in Benin

When we started the federation I was the only rower. Benin has many lagoons, which are perfect places to row, and that has helped us develop the sport. We now have five clubs all close to Cotonou. I have visited some of them and they are lucky to train such beautiful locations. I would love to row there too.

Our aim is to continue to make the sport more accessible to people in Benin. FISA helps us by providing us with equipment. We have received boats and ergs (ergometers or indoor rowing machines) so that people can train wherever they are.

The federation in Benin has made it free which is essential if we want rowing to become popular. All people need to do is show interest in the sport and they will put you in a boat and teach you how to row. So it is very accessible and easy thanks to the federation that didn’t make it mandatory for people to pay a lot of money. This is all possible thanks to FISA’s support.

Balancing work and rowing

In the beginning, I didn’t tell my employers nor did I ask for any special treatment. I just organized my time so that I could finish at my desk in time to start my day as the rest of my colleagues. Since I had to be at work at 9 AM, it meant that I had to wake up at 6 AM, complete my workout, shower, and be at the office by then.

It was the same thing when I was at school. My daily schedule would change so I would adapt when I trained, always ensuring that it got done. I also had to make sure that I did my homework and take care of all the other responsibilities that I had.

It’s not complicated but it demands a lot of planning, organization, and flexibility. I have to ensure that I maximize all the hours that I have during the day.

Once people in the office found out about my project, they have been supportive especially during competitions when they follow my results. They encourage me and it keeps me motivated.

My boss understands when I have to take time off from work for two weeks or sometimes a whole month. I usually do a training camp before competitions and he knows that it’s not like I am taking time off to go on vacation.

Support is essential in order to keep going

When I told my parents about my dream to make it to the Olympic games, their first reaction was to ask me why. They realized that it would be a long and difficult journey, and they wanted to understand what my motivation was. I told them that it was an opportunity for me to do something good for Benin. I knew that they would be happy for me to represent Benin.

Since then, my parents have helped me a lot in the project. All my family and friends have also been very supportive. Over the years, I have done some fundraising campaigns and the people in my community have always spread the word to their friends.

I have had to make many sacrifices to get to this point. I stopped going on vacation. As a high-performance athlete, you don’t really have the time. For example, I had a lot of opportunities to go skiing with my friends, but I never did because it’s too dangerous. You also can’t take a week off to just have fun. You have to constantly try to stay focused on your goals.

That has been the biggest challenge. I sometimes took 3 or 4 days off, but that’s it. After that, I had to get back to regular training.

Qualifying for Tokyo

I rowed some additional strokes after crossing the finish line. I had issues with the officials four years before and I just wanted to make sure this time around.

Once I had crossed the line, I was totally lost. It took me time to come to grips with the fact that I had actually qualified for Tokyo. It was a huge relief for me and a great sense of accomplishment that I had done it after all the hard work and sacrifices.

After all, this dream has changed my life! I have had the opportunity to travel around the world, meet new people, and make friends. It has been such a great experience.

All along the way, enthusiasm and support have been great. It has led to opportunities with the media such as being featured on the Tokyo 2020 website, interviewed for BeIn sports, CNN, Vox Africa, and media in Benin.

COVID-19 hit me hard

The announcement that the Olympic games would not take place this year was a tough moment for me. After all this, I was ready and the news was a big blow. I had been preparing for such a long time and was so close to finally achieving my dream of rowing in Tokyo.

My plan was to stop being an elite rower just after the Olympics in order to start a “normal” life. I wanted to finally take a vacation and have some fun with my family and friends. So, it was difficult to think that there would be more than a year left (since it was announced in March).

There is the financial aspect: I need to find new sponsors to partner with until next year. It hasn’t always been easy to raise funds.

It also affected the way that I train. In France, we had 2 months of lockdown during which we were not able to leave our houses other than to buy food and exercise for an hour a day. So I brought my erg in my garage and trained on it twice a day.

It was very different to train alone. It was tough for my motivation and my brain. In the end, it was beneficial because erging helps you increase your fitness levels.

Staying at home during those months also taught me to be more patient and disciplined. It would have been easier to just watch Netflix and relax on my couch.

Looking forward

When you have a dream you have to stay focused on the process, this will help you when things get tough. You have to keep the goal in mind all the time and motivate yourself on a daily basis.

I don’t know what the future holds after Tokyo. I haven’t planned that part out yet. I just know that I will find a new project and adjust my life accordingly.

I might go to Benin to try to help the federation grow. Maybe find some more boats and even coach some of the rowers there. For now, I have a lot of ideas in my head but I have to choose the right one.

Thanks Privel for sharing your experience with us.

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