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Rok Rozman: From Olympian to eco-activist helping save Europe's last wild rivers - "They are full of joy"

Slovenian Olympian went from competitive rower to launching a movement that aims to protect wild rivers in the Balkans region, and connect environmental defenders across the world. Click to read his incredible story in this exclusive Olympics.com interview.

7 min By Ken Browne | Created 25 September 2022.
Rok Rozman in front of Grmečica waterfall, a tributary to his home river Sava Bohinjka. Photo: Rožle Bregar
(Picture by VIZUALIST)

Olympian, biologist, pro kayaker, fly fisherman, nature conservationist; Rok Rozman is a man of many talents, dedicated to saving the world's last remaining wild waterways.

"The river is full of joy," the Slovenian tells Olympics.com in an interview to mark World Rivers Day on Sunday (25 September 2022).

"It’s where I find most beautiful places, most abundant habitats and joy... I feel free in rapids, joyful, and happy to be alive."

He competed for his country at the Beijing 2008 Games, rowing in the men's coxless four. Since then he's found another purpose on the water that's taken him on a winding journey:

To save the Balkan rivers, some of Europe's last great wild water flows.

Two thirds of the world's rivers have been dammed according to National Geographic, causing losses of indigenous plant and animal species including types of fish, birds, beavers, and even river turtles.

Back in 2016, plans were revealed by Save the Blue Heart of Europe NGO research for 2,700 dams on the last pristine rivers in Europe, almost all of them in the Balkans.

When Rozman found out the plans included damming the river Sava in Slovenia - his local river - he couldn't just stand by anymore.

"The decision to go to action was not a hard one to make," he says.

Balkan Rivers Tour 1 flotilla on the Bohinj Lake, Slovenia. The crew travelled and paddled through 6 Balkan countries to help protect rivers. The event lasted for 36 days and gathered more than 1.500 people from 18 nations. Photo: Matic Oblak
Balkan Rivers Tour 1 flotilla on the Bohinj Lake, Slovenia. The crew travelled and paddled through 6 Balkan countries to help protect rivers. The event lasted for 36 days and gathered more than 1.500 people from 18 nations. Photo: Matic Oblak

Rok Rozman and the Balkan River Defence

Mobilising a crew of five friends including two kayakers, a photographer, and two videographers, Rozman set out on a journey through six countries to try and help save the rivers.

Kayaking from Slovenia to Albania across six countries they "connected with local river defenders, gained international media exposure, and organised protests and creative actions where it was risky for locals to do so," as Rozman tells it.,

"It was a simple concept," he says. A simple concept that made a big impact: "Helped stop six dams, encouraged more people to stand up for their home rivers, and above all proved it can be done."

This first ever 'Balkan Rivers Tour' was immortalised in an award-winning documentary called 'The Undamaged' and also became an inspiration for further action.

"We couldn’t just stop after the first tour so we did a second one and then every year until the fifth one last year," Rozman tells Olympics.com in September 2022.

"We realised this has become a movement; we named it 'Balkan River Defence' and started slowly connecting the dots between well established and successful international river conservation NGOs, locals, outdoor communities, and mainstream audiences to the level where the whole thing is working in sync for the good of wild rivers.

"We add our piece to the puzzle by bringing the topic to a mainstream audience through films, articles, research, and live events, sometimes even parties and concerts."

But hold up a second, many people will ask: What's wrong with dams?

The impact of dams

Rozman believes dams could have a negative impact on the environment.

"Dams change habitats so drastically many indigenous animal and plant species can't cope," he says.

"So you end up having a reservoir packed with invasive animals and plants. The rivers in Europe for instance are so clogged by dams (There are more than 1,000,000 obstacles in European rivers, he claims) that the river specialist species barely have anywhere to go anymore.

"We have come to the point where any extra dams can mean extinction for local species, many migratory fish already completely disappeared from European rivers and with them the way of life for many riverside communities.

“For people this means loss of employment through fishing and tourism, changes in local climate (fog in cold parts of the year), potential loss of access to drinking water, and in the case of big dams people have to move from their homes to accommodate the reservoir.”

Rok Rozman addressing the crowd in front of the Slovenian parliament as a finale of Balkan Rivers Tour 3 in 2018 demanding a halt to dam plans on Mura and Sava. Photo: Katja Jemec
Rok Rozman addressing the crowd in front of the Slovenian parliament as a finale of Balkan Rivers Tour 3 in 2018 demanding a halt to dam plans on Mura and Sava. Photo: Katja Jemec (COPYRIGHTED @ katjajemec.si)

Determination

Rok Rozman is a determined man. Or "stubborn," as he sees it.

One look at his sporting story will tell you that. He started out as an ice hockey player at the club his grandfather used to support.

But at 17 years of age, during a big fight with his coach, he said: "I've had enough of you, I'm going rowing."

"Why I said that is still a mystery to me," he laughs, "I knew nothing about rowing, but it seemed like a stupid enough statement for a fight and a sport that rewards the hard-working."

"I really liked hockey, but once you announce something like that in front of 25 people you shared a childhood with, you can’t just pull back, can you?

"I packed up the hockey bag and walked to the rowing club the next day."

Four years later he was in an Olympic final at Beijing 2008, where the Slovenia coxless four boat finished as close to an Olympic medal as you can get, in fourth place.

The thing that drove him in rowing was "pure stubborness" he says, and now he's applying that same drive and determination to conservation, becoming an eco-inspiration along the way.

Protecting rivers for good

Yet while Balkan River Defence has had some success, they aren't getting carried away by the current.

"Luckily the core people in our crew stayed the same, simple boys and girls that don’t have their heads in the clouds," Rozman affirms.

"Our feet are firmly on the ground and we're proud of our village roots and thus manage to keep it small and functional.

"There are ever more dam plans popping up, though.

"But if we all work together and hold them back for another couple of years, the general opinion will catch up and come to realisation that dams are not a solution.

"Also, and this makes me the happiest, many of the little groups in the Balkans that we sort of helped get their feet under them are now solid initiatives successfully protecting their rivers.

"On top of that, big river conservation organisations that are active in the Balkans (Save the Blue Heart of Europe, Euronatur, Riverwatch) have had some real success in changing legislation in favour of wild rivers which will protect rivers for good."

Saving the Sava

For the fifth and most recent Balkan Rivers Tour the team stayed home on the Sava river.

"Why?" asks Rozman, "because we like it and because politicians came up with a proposal to build up to 12 new dams on it in Slovenia.

"So when someone wants to destroy a place that is dear to you and provides thousands with drinking water, a place to go to relax, a tourist destination and a home to wildlife you simply slap on the table and say 'no.'

"The crew paddled the entire 251 kilometers of Sava in Slovenia in 11 days.

"We filmed the adventure and then dove into postproduction for 8 months to produce a full feature documentary called One for the River: The Sava Story that is now touring Slovenia at summer events, it will be in cinemas soon and hopefully get to national television."

"We produced an English version of the film which has recently started its path via international film festivals and already won two awards."

Rok Rozman walking to the place where he puts in to go kayaking on his home river Sava. Photo: Rožle Bregar
Rok Rozman walking to the place where he puts in to go kayaking on his home river Sava. Photo: Rožle Bregar (VIZUALIST)

"We simply need rivers" - Rok Rozman

"I am driven towards water, as a human, athlete, outdoorsman, fisherman, and biologist because it’s there where I find most beautiful places, most abundant habitats, and joy," he says.

"We simply need rivers.

"Everything there is so plain and simple, no stopping and overthinking things, you just have to go with the flow."

"So I don’t know if it’s a life mission, but I am sure determined to save the Sava, as there is no real need to destroy it and we get way more if we keep it wild."

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