Interactive course map: Egypt's Omar Nour has taken an interesting path toward the world of professional triathlons. His next challenge is the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, writes Steve Elling.
Abu Dhabi Triathlon: Omar Nour is talking a big game
When it comes to glib, the extroverted Egyptian is the utter opposite of the Great Sphinx - which has stood mute sentry for centuries. Two years ago at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, Nour conducted an interview while on his bike and leading the race.
"I talk a ton, so you need to like stop me and say, 'Omar, you talk too much'," Nour warned with a laugh as a conversation unfolded. "I love this part of my job. There is nothing I like more than having a microphone in my face, or a camera in my face. I think most athletes view it as a chore."
It's a curiously bent part of the triathlon equation - the participants bathe daily in sunscreen, yet the sport needs all the exposure it can get. Wired and wily, Nour, 34, embraces the spotlight and seeks the sunshine.
If triathlon is going to find a foothold in the crowded marketplace of professional sports, it needs charismatic characters like Nour to peddle it, if you will. He speaks four languages and can appeal to a broad expanse of fans - as well as a demographic not often represented in elite triathlon competitions.
"I am tall, dark and Arab," he said, "with crazy hair."
He also is more than a little media savvy, Nour has his own logo, website, Facebook page, Twitter account and sports-management company. He has been an ombudsman for the sport, posing for photos with the Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee on the sands of the Corniche and filling up reporters' notebooks since arriving in the UAE last month. "I get a high out of it," he said.
He has an entertaining tale to relate, too, borne of over-indulgence and personal frustration, with a smattering of Washington politics for added spice. The pedigree of most triathletes is a familiar one - former cyclists or distance runners who are seeking a different challenge. Nour's unusual resume is as wild as his hair and takes hours to convey, even though he talks faster than he cycles.
It is not a media contrivance, either. Triathletes are famously self-propelled, but from the very start, it is as if Omar's mouth has had a motor. "Always, always, always," his younger brother, Diaa, said.
Nour's family relocated to the United States while he was young, settling in Washington. A gifted student with an ear for languages, he enrolled at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, in nearby Baltimore, whereupon his guidance counsellor tried to help him identify a career path.
He was weighing majors in biology, French and Middle Eastern studies. The counsellor strongly suggested that he narrow his focus, which led to Nour's first documented triathlon success. Four years later, Nour returned to the counsellor's office with degrees in all three disciplines and tossed his diploma on the counsellor's desk. It was a characteristically theatrical moment, except for one part. "Four years of trying to prove a guy wrong and he didn't remember me," Nour said.
His professional path was equally eclectic. He and Diaa founded a series of start-up companies, with little success. In a risky move seven years ago, they used the equity from their home to launch a communications firm and call centre, which has been prosperous enough to allow Omar to travel the word on two feet and two wheels. As big brother competes in triathlons, Diaa runs in the rat race back home, piloting the business.
"We were either going to make it," Omar said, "or we were going to be jobless and homeless."
Now he lives out of a suitcase because he loves it, though six years ago, nobody would have guessed that Nour, currently as thin as a bicycle spoke at 1.91 metres and 77.1 kilograms, was destined for any athletic pursuit. Stressed out from his personal financial situation and eating the wrong foods, he had seen his weight balloon to 104.4kg.
A telling moment came when he twice ruptured the seam of his pants, once while climbing into his Ford Mustang. "My underwear was in the wind," he said.
Seamless might describe his immersion into triathlon, too. A friend had signed up for a major triathlon in Washington and Nour's interest was piqued. Nour's pal all but laughed at him, Diaa said.
"Be serious: look at you," the friend said.
He had a point, and not just from the perspective of fitness. Nour had not been on a bike since he was 13, but stubbornly began training. Rather than buy a set of wheels, he visited a series of shops and asked if he could take high-end bikes on test runs. He would return, hours later and soaked in sweat, complaining that the bike was not quite right for him.
"I got black-listed by every bike store in town." Now, he gets paid to ride.
He made the best kind of list fast enough. Nour competed in a triathlon for the first time in September 2007, finishing eighth in his age group and, at a subsequent social event, ran into Andrian Fenty, then the mayor of Washington, who also had competed.
They compared times; Nour had shaded him by a couple of minutes. Fenty was apparently so entertained by their conversation, he handed over his business card and suggested they train together.
Nour said: "I thought, 'He is just being a politician, in the middle of a crowd.'"
But he soon received a text message telling him to meet at the mayor's house at 5am for a 10-mile run through the US capital, and the training hook was truly and permanently set.
"You're in your 20s, training with the mayor, and it's pretty cool," he said. "You're getting a police escort all over a pretty important town. So you are going to drop whatever you are doing to work out with this guy. Off we went."
In 2009, his brother agreed to take the reins of the company, called Tot Solutions, as Nour turned his avocation into a vocation, lining up sponsors, travelling the world and gradually climbing the ladder into the elite ranks as a professional.
Friends have suggested Diaa got the tougher end of the deal, but he is not so sure. "I would never have been able to handle the amount of pain and suffering and dedication you need to succeed in that sport, and it's not very [financially] rewarding," Diaa said. "You've got to really, really love it."
Some of Omar's biggest moments have come on UAE surf, sand and soil. Nour finished second in the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon short-course competition in 2011 and was right in the mix at the Tri Yas event last month on Yas Island, despite crashing his bike at 45kph.
Nour was dutifully tossing the wrapper from a mid-race snack out of the roadway when he spectacularly toppled off the bike, but at least nobody can accuse him of being untidy. As you might have guessed, many top triathletes can be single-minded about certain things.
"In some ways, he can be a little obsessive-compulsive, and he is very detail-oriented," his brother said. "He can be very particular."
Sport doesn't fit anybody's template, however. With a badly bruised hip, a broken rib and road rash everywhere, he biked and ran the final 30km at Tri Yas to finish third, where he was roundly saluted. Among Nour's biggest advocates is the teenager Sam O'Shea of Khalifa City, who first approached Nour before a race two years ago and introduced himself.
To O'Shea's surprise, Nour did anything but ignore him. O'Shea, now 15, quickly won his age division and began competing in triathlons regularly. Just by being himself, the extroverted Nour had connected again, landing both a convert and a fan.
"I was totally new to the sport and he gave me some tips and hints," O'Shea said. "No doubt, what he said actually helped me win. He's a great ambassador for the sport. Some of the professionals, they are not really approachable. But he likes to share, and that's great."
Nour, admittedly a late starter in the sport, still hopes to play before the biggest audience of all, at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and has a new aural assault in mind. He already speaks English, French, Arabic and German, and plans to study a certain South American dialect.
He said: "If I make it to Rio in 2016, I can conduct interviews in Portuguese."
Abu Dhabi International Triathlon information
What 4th Abu Dhabi International Triathlon
Where Corniche public beach
When March 2, starting at 6.40am
Who An entry list of approximately 2,000, including many of the world's leading triathletes, like the 2012 Olympic gold-medal winner Alistair Brownlee of England.
Purse US$230,000 (Dh845,000)
Distances 223 kilometres on long course, 111.5 kilometres for short course and 55.75 kilometres on sprint course.
Notable men Eneko Llanos, Frederik van Lierde, Conrad Stoltz, Chris McCormack, Bryan Rhodes and Brownlee.
Notable women Angela Naeth, Caroline Steffen, Melissa Hauschildt and defending champion Nikki Butterfield.
Defending men's champions Rasmus Henning (6 hours, 21 minutes, 44 seconds) and Al Mendi Nouira (3:19:49) won on the men's long and short courses last year.
Defending women's champions Butterfield (7:00:22) and Rut Brito (3:53:14) claimed the top two women's divisions.
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