Med Student Navigates Life of Studies, Rowing Competitions By Mike Field Often, it is dark when Ruth Davidon hits the water. Just after 5 a.m., while much of Baltimore sleeps, the 30-year-old MD/PhD student in the School of Medicine quietly leaves her house and sleeping husband for a grueling two-hour workout on the Patapsco River. When Davidon, now in her third year of medical school, describes her five-times weekly routine, she speaks with a doctor's clinical clarity, leavened with the enthusiasm of a devotee. As she talks, her routine comes to life. Near a small dock along the Middle Branch of the river, Davidon hoists her boat above her head and carries it to the water's edge. She makes a second trip for the oars. Her boat- -a single scull, employing the lightweight, torpedo-shaped hull used in racing competitions--is only 12 inches wide and hardly as deep. Designed purely for speed, the boat seems to sit on the water, rather than in it. Davidon secures the oars in the scull's raised pivoting oarlocks, then, holding both oarhandles together, she puts one foot in the boat, slips into the sliding seat, and secures her feet in place. Years of practice have enabled Davidon to get into the boat_or, more accurately, onto it, since the boat's seat sits raised above the waterline_in a series of fluid motions. Though the scull is inherently unstable, she rarely tips over. Less than a minute after putting her boat in the water, Davidon is rowing silently away from the dock, into the swirling mists of the predawn darkness. An ordinary flashlight, taped to the bow of her boat, signals her presence to the tugboats and other commercial vessels that ply this part of the bay. It is only the first week of October, but already an autumnal chill lies across the water. Davidon pulls hard on her oars to warm up. In the winter, she wears layers and layers of wool to keep warm. Rain does not faze her. Snow is no problem. High winds and ice floes are the only things that will keep her away. She is a woman with a mission. "I want to win the gold medal for women's single sculling in the 1996 Olympics," said the American rowing champion matter-of-factly. She says it as if training for the Olympics while going through medical school is a natural combination, as if her objective is not to reach rowing's ultimate superlative: to be the fastest woman sculler in the world. If recent history is any guide, she has a good shot at it. In September a year ago, Davidon "stroked the boat"-- that is, she occupied the crucial stern seat that sets the stroke for the rest of the boat--for the American women's quadruple scull team at the World Championship in Prague. They won the bronze, the first such American team to place in the top three in nearly a decade. Many would have been thrilled with the accomplishment. For Davidon, it was only a beginning. "I rowed in high school but then stopped during college to pursue swimming and other sports," said the Amherst college graduate. She continued rowing during the summers, and spent a year doing "serious rowing" after she graduated from college. In 1987, she was invited to train with the national rowing team in Boston. Real life soon interfered, and Davidon stopped training to get married and pursue graduate work at Harvard. It would be four years before she would return to rowing. "I was running 10K road races and lifting weights and doing other exercise," Davidon recalled. "I just wasn't rowing. Then in the spring of 1992 I got on a rowing machine at my health club. I realized my score was pretty good." Good enough, it turned out, to gain an invitation to the quadruple sculls Olympic training camp that summer. She went, but did not make the team. In September of 1992 Davidon started medical school at Hopkins. Soon, she was back in training, this time with a renewed sense of determination. "In my first year of med school I took a week away from classes to attend a winter training camp," she said. "We would be out on the water rowing six and seven hours a day." Back in Baltimore, Davidon had friends tape lectures and send them to her via overnight mail. After practice, as other rowers settled down to socialize, Davidon would run off to study her notes. "I'm the rowing nerd," she said with a laugh. "I would eat my meals in half an hour and then jump up and go to the library while everyone else was out sightseeing." The training paid off, and after a series of trials both here and abroad, Davidon led the U.S. team to its bronze medal in Prague. After that, she was hooked. "In '94 I went to training camps in Augusta, Ga., for two weeks and in Eagle Nest, N.M., for three," Davidon said. Once again, she relied on classmates to send her notes. "At this point I started going really fast. I decided to step up my training to win a gold." When she participated in her first U.S. race that spring she won it by 10 seconds--a lopsided victory in a sport often decided in fraction of a second differences. In June, Davidon attended the U.S. National competition in Indianapolis, where she set a women's record by winning gold medals in all four sculling events, including the 2,000 meter single and the 500 meter dash. Her victory in that race won her an invitation to the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, in August. Convinced she had a shot at the world championship, Davidon took a leave of absence from medical school to turn all her attentions to rowing. It was not easy. "There are two different obstacles to success in rowing. First is the sheer pain factor, the physiological torment you have to go through to push your body to its limit," she said. "I've learned how to deal with that, although I sometimes envy tennis players and others who require skill more than physical strength." Davidon has achieved remarkable success in her training, despite the pain involved. Although her performance at last month's World Championships was, in her words, "a disappointment- I had a bad day" resulting in no medals, Davidon performed admirably at the Goodwill Games in August, winning a gold for the 500 meter single and a silver for the 1,000 meter single. Even as she resumes her medical studies, Davidon is planning her training program for the '96 Olympics in Atlanta. "There's always next year," she says optimistically. "I believe I can be the world champion and get through medical school." But that involves overcoming the second obstacle in her training: the sheer level of commitment the sport requires. "I miss my husband when I don't see him for weeks on end," she said. "That can be hard. Sometimes I think between the rowing and marriage and medical school that maybe I'm spread a little thin. "But I get a lot of support from my husband and my friends at school, and from the dean of students. And the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
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