Onat Kazakli, 28, is preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and is set to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian. Tokyo will be his last international competition as he plans to retire from rowing and start a new career after the Olympics. The Turkish single sculler won his Olympic qualification spot at the 2021 European Olympic Qualification Regatta in Varese, Italy. A former rower and recent convert to sculling, Onat reveals his take on the sweep-versus-sculling debate.
Where are you? I am on camp in Jajce, Bosnia. In Istanbul, it is polluted and I don’t like city life so, to be far away from the city makes me happy. Jajce has a beautiful lake we are rarely troubled by the wind or waves – it is good for long distance training. Currently the temperature is a hot 32°C. Each year I use this camp to prepare for the World Rowing Championships. I’ve been coming here since 2015 although in 2020 we spent the entire year in Turkey because of the pandemic. Normally the camp lasts one month, but a problem with my back meant I had to go home to Istanbul the other week to see the doctors.
How is your back? It is feeling better. I started to train on the water again and this is my fifth day back. I’m trying to rebuild my aerobic base because I lost a lot of time with my injury. I have long sessions on the water as well as running and cycling on land. Next week I will put in a bit more speed work.
Who are you training with? It is just me and my coach. We’ve worked together for 11 years. When we travel to Tokyo there will also be the President of the Turkish Rowing Federation. At the start of the camp I was training with our U23 squad, but they have left for Racice to compete in the U23 World Rowing Championships. We sent four boats, the men’s lightweight quad; men’s pair; women’s lightweight pair and women’s lightweight double. Most are targeting an A-Final, but I am hopefully that our lightweight quad can get a medal.
When do you fly to Japan? My flight is on the 17th of July. I will fly to Tokyo, from Turkey after my last block of training at home in Istanbul.
When will you taper? I don’t have too much time for a taper, but it won’t be until I arrive in Japan. I feel most comfortable when I’m active. If I rest too much, my body does not feel good, especially in the first race of a championship. That’s why I don’t like too much of a taper.
Where in Turkey do you train? I live in Istanbul and train out of the Fenerbahçe club. I also train on the Ömerli Dam. I started rowing at 12 years-old, and I’ve always raced for Fenerbahçe.
Is it 2000 metres long? Longer, much longer! You can row for 15-kilometres straight without turning. We have a shorter buoyed course for 1000-meter or 2000-meter pieces, often without any wind. It is a nice place to train.
How does it feel to be the only Turkish rower going to Tokyo? It is special for me and for my country. In 2016, our lightweight double managed to get to the Olympic Games and Ali Riza Bilal gained a wildcard entry at the 1992 Olympics. I will be the second single sculler to represent Turkey and the first open weight to qualify for the Olympics. It’s very special for me.
It must be tough to making your own way in the sport, is that fair? Yes, you have to find the right path. You don’t have somebody to follow. It is hard but I’m really happy to do it and to get this far.
How did it feel to qualify? It had conflicting feelings. I was happy but also disappointed about my final result. It was not the race I had hoped to deliver but sixth place was enough for me to go to Tokyo.
How are you feeling now? Actually, I’m a little upset about my injury because I missed so much training but I still will work hard and try to do my best at the Olympic Games. My goal was to make the semifinal, but now I don’t know if I will manage it. I would love to be in the top ten, but we will see. I’m not sure.
What motivates you? To be an Olympian was my childhood dream. When I was a junior, I participated in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore and from that day on I worked towards the real Olympic Games. In 2015, I was in the pair, and we nearly qualified for Rio. Afterwards I changed my pairs partner but a few years, he quit. That’s when I tried the single. My first sculling experience was in 2018 and I thought I’ll never make it, but my family continued to support me. They put a lot of trust in me that kept me motivated.
Was it hard moving from sweep to sculling? Technically it is a challenge, but the mental side is also huge. You don’t have somebody to push you when you are tired or when you don’t want to train. You are always lonely, and you have to push yourself. It has good points too. You are not dependent on someone else; if you are good, it is fast. And there is direct feedback from the boat.
Do you think of yourself as a sculler or a sweeper? I’m still a sweeper, it is a much more common movement for me. I’ve got used to sculling but I’m not so comfortable in the single. But I had to do it this way there was no other choice.
Do you know the other scullers? I have friends from the Serbian team, and also the single scullers from Bulgaria and Hungary. We sometimes work together on training camps. This year the Bulgarian and Hungarian scullers came to Köyceğiz, our winter training base. It was really nice.
How will you feel arriving at the Olympics? I will be so happy to be there, and maybe a little bit emotional. It is a dream moment for me.
Did you have any doubts that the Games would go ahead? I hope it is not cancelled at this late stage. I did have doubts through the year but I tried to keep focussed. I’m sure the Games will be very different from normal. It will probably be the most unusual Olympic Games in the history of all Olympic Games! I wish I could join a ‘normal’ Olympic Games, but this my chance and we will see how it goes.
Are there any Olympic races you are keen to see? Of course! All the events will be tough, but I really wonder about the men’s eight. I think it will be between Great Britain and Germany but also New Zealand and the Netherlands have good crews. They have put their best pairs in those boats including Hamish Bond for New Zealand. And Australia might be fast too. I also want to watch the men’s fours, the pairs, the lightweight double sculls. Trying to guess those results is impossible because the competition is so tough. We haven’t seen the Canadians, Australians, or New Zealanders for nearly two seasons. I wonder how fast those nations will be and how they have prepared for this Olympics.
Beyond rowing what Olympics sports will you watch? Turkey is good in the wrestling and the weightlifting events. Perhaps, I will watch some of those. We are also not bad at taekwondo and judo.
Did you ever do any other sports when you were growing up? I tried swimming for three months, but I found it really boring.
Have you got your Olympic kit? Not yet. Maybe it is ready, but I still haven’t got it. Perhaps, they will give it to us when fly and I’ll have to get changed in the airport! If not, I’ll need to borrow a lycra from the wrestling team.
Do you have a go-to race-day breakfast? A cup of coffee, some oatmeal and a banana.