From humble beginnings as a curious 12 year-old novice, Tunisian Olympian star Mohamed Ali Mrabet will spearhead the challenge from the African men at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with bold plans to make his home country and continent proud.
The 26 year-old from the historic coastal city of Bizerte in Tunisian has made headlines since his arrival on the international flatwater racing scene, most notably when he twice won K1 500m bronze medals in World Cup regattas in 2012 ahead of the London Olympics.
Four years on, the cheerful Tunisian is determined to show that he can exert pressure on the world’s best, particularly after making the K1 500m A-final in the recent Račice World Cup, a week after hounding Canadian ace Adam van Koeverden all the way to the line in a dramatic K1 1000m semi-final in Duisburg.
Behind the cheerful exterior lies a steely and highly competitive athlete, driven by personal goals and a passion to represent Tunisia and Africa to the best of his ability.
“The Olympic Games in Rio are very important for me because I have become a much more experienced athlete since the London Olympic Games,” said Mrabet.
“This is my chance to make my country and Africa proud!” he added.
Mrabet sealed his place at the Rio showcase with an emphatic win in the K1 1000m men’s A-final at the African Championships at Shongweni Dam, South Africa where he retained his continental crown. His joy at winning gold thinly disguised his elation at confirming his place in the Tunisian team for the Rio Games.
Since his arrival on the international competitive sprinting stage Mrabet has accumulated a loyal following of fans, not only in his home country but across the world and is also a talisman for the rapidly improving Tunisian national team.
It all started in 2002 when Mrabet, as an enthusiastic 12 year-old sailor, became fascinated by kayakers training at his harbour town.
“The canoe club was next to my sailing club and I started watching the kayakers with interest until one day I decided to give it a try,” said Mrabet. “From that day on I have never looked back!”
Apart from the pleasure involved in mastering the sport, Mrabet was gripped by the competitive element and saw opportunities to test himself against the best.
A year later he was the Tunisian K1 champion and set his sights higher. By 2005 he had won the African continental title and in 2007 added the Arabic title to his CV.
“Then I decided to try and beat the best athlete in the world,” says Mrabet.
In his early days he unashamedly looked up to Australian star, Kenny Wallace and set out to try and emulate his hero.
“I am highly competitive,” added Mrabet. “I am the sort of person that hates losing, so from that very first day I was always training to win.”
Mrabet has enjoyed encouragement and support from many tiers of the sport globally and has been able to share training camps with other international federations and coaches while the International Canoe Federation has backed his emergence for many years.
Last month the ICF facilitated the provision of a state-of-the-art Nelo K1 for Mrabet to race at the Rio Olympics.
Off the water Mrabet has immersed himself in a life of sport, studying sport education to the point of being appointed a professor of physical education in 2013.
In between his paddling training for Rio, Mrabet, who comes from a large family with an older brother and two sisters, fuels his competitive urges by cycling and racing triathlons.