Tokyo-bound Benin rower Privel Hinkati: "I wanted to be different"

Having contemplated retirement after failing to make Rio 2016, the French-born single sculler will be the first rower to represent Benin at the Olympic Games

By Evelyn Watta

Attending the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games as a spectator fired Privel Hinkati’s imagination.

Armed with a passion for rowing, a sport he discovered on television when he was 14 years old, he embarked on a goal to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Hinkati opted not to compete for his birth country of France, instead choosing to represent his parents’ home nation of Benin.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind for the 31-year-old.

His "crazy" ambition was initially to qualify for Rio 2016, but he missed the target and even considered quitting the sport.

But the single sculler continued to pursue his Olympic dream and he has now qualified for Tokyo 2020.

Hinkati secured his place at last October's African Championships in Tunisia and will become the first Beninese rower to compete at the Games.

The rower from SN Caen is excited at the chance to compete in Tokyo and join Benin’s Olympic roll of honour.

The tiny West African nation has sent a total of 66 athletes to the Games since its Olympic debut, under old name Dahomey, at Munich 1972.

Olympic Channel spoke to Hinkati about his Olympic aspirations, his journey to Tokyo 2020, and his joy of spreading the sport of rowing in Benin.

"Now my story is real. Before it was a crazy story." Privel Hinkati on qualifying for Tokyo 2020

Privel Hinkati training in Caen (photo courtesy of Privel Hinkati)

Hooked on TV

Olympic Channel: How were you training during the lockdown?

Privel Hinkati: I was doing it in my garage on my rowing machine with music. It was crazy because I would start at 6am when most people are still sleeping, and you know the machine makes a lot of noise. But all my neighbours understood. They knew I had qualified for the Olympics, and I am very grateful for that. The two weeks before the Olympic Games was postponed I was pushing hard, and it meant more noise. But I toned down after the postponement.

OC: How did you get into rowing?

PH: Growing up in my city Caen, I did a lot of sports. I cycled, we all played soccer and basketball on the streets. I also practised taekwondo until when I was seven years. It was a very good sport.

"One day I was chatting with my friends, there was one who had a boat. And they insisted that the following year I should join them as they thought that I stood a good chance if I did the sport, and they told me I would also be very, very strong. Then I decided to try it when I was about 14 years old, and at the end of that I year I made the final of the French Championship.

"When I tried it first, I knew this sport was for me, because it was difficult but cool and it taught me a lot about myself.

"I wanted to be different, I decided to take a different path. I discovered rowing on TV, it was a beautiful sport to watch on TV." - Privel Hinkati

Long road to the Olympics

OC: Your road to the Olympics has been a long one. Your initial plan was to qualify for Rio 2016 but it didn’t quite go to plan…

PH: It was tough. It was one of the most difficult moments in my life. I put so much effort, I put everything in it. I had sort of a mid-race accident. Someone came into my lane and blocked me, and he beat me to the finish line, and I missed qualification.

I didn’t expect not to qualify. That was my dream. I took time off to think about what I wanted to do next, whether I should quit, or try to do something else. A lot of my friends and family told me that I would not be happy if I do not try again, because I will keep saying, 'What if, what if?' And possibly I could be stronger.

My coach Reilly Dampeer told me the same thing, that I would be stronger and smarter next time.

You will know when to react or what to do on course, you will be more experienced and stronger.

Four years later, I'm now qualified.

OC: You had an elaborate plan for Rio. You even crowdfunded to cover training costs abroad. How difficult was that?

PH: The difficulty was that I am living and training in France but since I don’t feature for the team here it’s difficult to find money. And then competing as a Beninese rower, it was a big challenge to explain my project, to raise funds when I decided to be more professional in my practice. I needed money to get to the next level: eat healthily, work on my recovery with a physiotherapist…

I also needed to organise myself better during travels. So, the crowdfunding was successful because when I approached companies, I tried to show them that they are not just supporting my effort but my dream, a different kind of sponsorship.

"I raised enough money to do the minimum for qualification through to Tokyo. I can say enough to have good preparations, but not adequately and perfectly like the other rowers."

My fellow competitors in the single sculls category are professionals ranked in the top 30 in the world.

They train in the morning, afternoon; it’s full-time training, most don’t have to work. For me, I have to work and to get to that level, I needed money to support my training, to travel to tournaments, cover my training camps, for my boats and cover the costs of my coach and physio.

My coach is based in Oklahoma City. I studied in the U.S. and after my studies that enabled me to work as a computer engineer. We began training together in Washington, D.C. I met her there while she was the coach of a high-performance club rowing programme.

Normally, I hold about four or five training camps a year in the U.S. The other times, we discuss the training program by WhatsApp, Zoom. She is very good, calm, very positive and is always trying to bring out the best in me. She has helped me a lot in my performance. Her last words when I get on the water every time are, 'There is no excuse. Give your best.'

For now, I don’t have enough money to live off just on the sport. I hope I can do that maybe next year.

"The Olympic dream. Yes, the Olympic dream." - Privel Hinkati on why he chose not to quit after failing to qualify for Rio 2016

Privel Hinkati competing at the 2016 World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland in May 2016

From Olympic spectator to Olympian in waiting

OC: What was the motivation to continue after failing to qualify for Rio 2016?

PH: It’s a thing I had with my big sister around the Olympics which we had been lucky to attend. When I was a kid, we did a project with my city to go to Athens 2004. We were about eight kids raising money for a town project. We had the chance to travel but since I was the youngest, I gave up my spot to another kid. Four years later, I was selected to go to Beijing 2008, (then) London 2012 and Rio 2016 as part of my city’s project. I was at the Games as a spectator.

OC: Do you remember something special from the three Olympics you attended as a spectator?

PH: In Beijing, I can’t forget the people. We arrived two weeks before and it was like a normal city. Then 'Boom', the Olympics start and you have thousands of people with costumes and everything, millions of people everywhere. Everything was so well organised.

In London, it was the track and field, the final of the women's 400m. The stadium was literally shaking. It was an amazing feeling. I felt the race tension, the great atmosphere, this was my favourite.

For Rio, I remember the rowing during the (lightweight) double sculls which the French won in a close finish. It was a good atmosphere as well. To be in the same place with Pierre Houin and Jérémie Azou was just awesome. Good memories.

OC: Was it difficult for you to sit and watch the rowing events in Rio as you were meant to have been on the other side competing?

PH: No, for me it was like my motivation to watch the race where I could have been. I told myself, ‘OK, now I'm watching the action but in four years in Tokyo, I’ll be on the water’. It was a huge source of inspiration.

OC: True to your word and dreams, you'll be going to Tokyo not as a fan but as an Olympian. How were you feeling before the qualifying race in Tunis?

PH: Rowing is a very difficult sport. You are sure you will be dead at the end of the race. What we discussed with my coach was how to deal with the feeling after the race whether I qualified or not.

The approach for the race, was to channel the disappointment of missing the qualification for Rio to power me for my Tokyo qualification race. The idea was to use the pain and disappointment from then and to remain focused on the goal ahead.

OC: How special was the moment you qualified?

PH: I don’t have the right words to explain the feeling. I remember when I qualified, I kept rowing past the finish line, I kept rowing (onwards). I didn’t want to take any chances. I just wanted to be sure. It wasn’t until the announcer said, ‘Everyone must stop now’ – that’s when I stopped.

OC: How did you place in the qualification race?

PH: I booked the fourth qualification ticket; I was fifth in the race. We knew that one guy who finished ahead of me had already qualified in another team category, as according to the qualification system you can only send one boat per country.

"I think will believe I am really at the Olympics when I get to the Olympic village."

OC: When and why did you decide to race for Benin?

PH: At London 2012, I was with my sister and after the final of the 400m I said, 'I want to do this.'

And she said, ‘OK, do you want to race for Benin or France?’ I told her, ‘I think for Benin, because it will be bigger and for France I will just focus on the sport and that's it. And for Benin I must start from scratch, no federation, no funds, no boats, nothing. No one in the country knows this sport.’

I decided to focus on the sport and do much more. That's why I chose Benin.

OC: And how easy was it for you to set up the whole structure from founding a federation, the administration bit and sharing the sport?

PH: I realised I can do the sport, but I can't do all the other things.

We worked with the International Federation and a team in Benin to set up the structure. The Federation now exists and is working. We have about five rowing clubs in Benin, and close to 70 rowers. Just after my Olympic qualification, I had a chance to compete in the doubles at the African Championships with a compatriot from Benin and we finished fourth, we just missed the podium.

But it was something special for me because two days before I had achieved my dream and my other goal was to create and grow the sport, have homegrown talent competing at international events. Remember we started from nothing; they didn't even know the sport.

‘I am not crazy or a liar'

OC: What has been your greatest moment this far in your career?

PH: I will say my qualification because now my story is real. Before it was a crazy story.

A lot of people in the rowing clubs in France, they called me crazy to even imagine and dream of qualifying for the Olympics. They didn't think I had the level required and while some thought that I was maybe even raising funds just for my personal use.

A lot of them later came and told me, 'We thought you were crazy and now you have succeeded and realised your crazy dream. You managed to raise funds, and your level has greatly improved since you began training and joined a professional team. Congratulations!'

When I started my level was not OK, but I worked very hard in training here [in France] and the U.S.

There I was, qualified, the highlight of a project I started in 2012. For me it was more than just rowing. I believed and achieved a dream.

"I remembered all these moments when I qualified. I told myself, ‘I am not crazy or a liar. Yes, it was a long shot but here I am qualified.'"

OC: How proud are you to be representing Benin in rowing?

PH: A lot of people keep asking me this. Especially at this time when there is focus on black people and diversity. Before at the World Cups and the World Championships, I was usually one of a handful of black athletes competing. There was maybe a Cuban, a Togolese. During registration they would ask 'What is your country?' I would say Benin. They would ask, 'Is that a country?’ It was funny.

I remember once a lady from Togo arrived at the registration desk and she was asked which country she was from. She said 'I am from Togo'. The man told her, 'I'm sorry, I want to know which country you are from not where you want "to go".' Then she would tell them, 'There is a country called Togo!'

But over the last two years, when I go back to some of the events, they now recognise me and announce proudly, ‘Ah Benin is here!’ They even recognise the Benin flag colours on my boat and oars.

Privel Hinkati at the World Rowing Championships in May 2019 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. 

OC: What's your typical day like?

PH: Busy days. My wake up is at 5.07am. The alarm is set for 4.50am or 5am; if I snooze the alarm it should never go past 5.07 am otherwise I will be off-schedule. I try to stretch my sleep completely. By 6am I am in the water rowing until 8 am.

Then I must be at the office by 9am. I work until 12 noon. Then during my lunch break I go for my physical training, and then back to the office until 6pm. I have a late training session from 6.30-8pm.

I go back home, have dinner and go to bed between 10 and 11pm every weekday.

The weekends on Saturday I have two or three practices a day starting at 7am. On Sunday I have one practice at 8am and try to rest in the afternoon.

Amidst all that I have to find time to do my logistics, plan my training camps, coordinate my travels to competitions and also send proposals to sponsors for possible partnerships and support.

OC: Packed days... what is the motivation to keep doing this?

PH: To row at the Olympics I must be at the top of my game. I know to be an Olympian or be good enough I have to train at least between nine and 13 times a week, that’s a minimum of 35-40 hours a week.

It's a choice you make if you want to succeed and be the best. My coach has also played a key role in ensuring I stay motivated and keep training hard, keep putting in the work.

She makes me work even harder by reminding me often that 'every day is your day to be your best; to be better than the previous day'.

"When I am struggling to get out of bed to train and I have excuses in my head like 'I am too tired' or 'the weather is bad’, I remember today is my chance to be better and I cannot be better in my bed."

Privel Hinkati competing at the World Rowing Cup 1 on May 11, 2019 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (photo courtesy of World Rowing)

OC: What has rowing taught you?

PH: It has taught me the value of hard work and how powerful the mind can be. It is the best sport especially in the team events. Because when you're on the boat with your partner and you are tired, your partner will help you and push you and you appreciate his help and know you were not in the best shape then so you have to up your level for the next time. This has taught me the value of teamwork.

Rowing has shown me how much I can achieve, how far I can go, and it has also taught me so much about myself. There is so much I didn’t know about my capabilities, and even about who I want to be in life and how much I can develop as a person.

It has been 20 years of rowing, but every day is a day to learn a new thing.

Also, in rowing you also spend lot of hours of training and it engages your whole body, which is healthy.

OC: What are your interests and what do you enjoy eating?

PH: My coach will kill me, but I am a huge fan of American food. Burgers and pizzas are my favourites. And Beninese food.

I like music, mainly rap and zouk music and I also enjoy watching TV shows.

OC: Now that you have achieved the first step of your dream which is to qualify for Tokyo, what would you tell a young Beninese harbouring the same Olympic dream you have had for years?

PH: My message to them would be very simple. If you have a dream you can achieve it. Find a way to make it possible. Impossible is nothing, a common saying but it stands true. I am an example.

"If you find a way to make it possible, keep believing in yourself and you will do it."