A Ripple Effect : Amy Fuller Claimed a Silver Medal in Rowing After a Chance Meeting Put Her on a New Course

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind every Olympic medalist lies a story of dedication, discipline and drive, of adversity overcome and dreams fulfilled, and Amy Fuller's story is no exception.

However, Fuller's story contains another element: serendipity. For if Fuller and a casual acquaintance whose name she can't recall had not met a stranger whose name she never caught, she would not have set a world record on an ergometer, or won an Olympic silver medal in a rowboat, or partied with George Foreman and Spike Lee and Mary Lou Retton on a luxury cruise liner.

But they did. And she has.

The year was 1988, and Fuller was entering her sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara. The stranger was recruiting for the women's novice crew team. The friend was intrigued.

"She said, 'I'll go to the meeting if you go,' " Fuller says with a smile, which is how she says most things these days. "So we went to the meeting, and she said, 'I'll try it if you try it.' She quit after two weeks. I was hooked."

Fuller always had excelled in athletics. She was a Junior Olympic swimmer as a child, a basketball standout at Westlake High. But she showed little potential for greatness--until she tried rowing.

"The first time I got on the (ergometer) I just knew I could pull a faster time than anybody else," she says. "The first time I got in a boat, I felt like I was born to do this, like I was made for this sport. I can't even describe the feeling. I was just lucky to find this sport."

Call it luck. Call it fate. Call it what you will, but on Aug. 1, four years after her introduction to rowing, Fuller found herself on the medal stand in Banolas, 80 miles north of Barcelona, watching the American flag raised in honor of her crew's second-place finish in the women's four without coxswain. Tears flowed, tears of joy, tears made possible by two anonymous women who had no idea what fires they were lighting at the time.

"I wonder if they know now," Fuller says. "Maybe they were watching on TV. Maybe they were saying, 'Man, Fuller would never have started rowing if it wasn't for me.' "

Of course, serendipity alone does not a medalist make. Fuller, a relative rowing youngster at 24, has paid her dues, literally--crew was a $500-per-semester club sport at UCSB--and figuratively.

Rowing is a simple sport. Basically, crews of four or eight rowers, with or without coxswains to scream cadences into their ears, race long, skinny boats 2,000 meters. But rowing is also grueling, requiring tremendous strength and endurance, and impeccable technique.

The first time Fuller tried an ergometer, the rowing machine used to measure individual prowess, she posted the fastest time in the UCSB program. But as the crew maxim goes, ergs don't float. At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Fuller was all power, no finesse. She had to learn how to move her oars through the water efficiently, and that took four years of intense practice.

Crew practice is not like, say, basketball practice. In basketball, you can work on rebounding, passing, outside shooting, inside shooting, dribbling or defense. You can devise drills that combine a few of those skills. You can scrimmage.

In crew practice, you work on your stroke, your whole stroke, and nothing but your stroke. Catch, release, drive, recovery. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You pull your oars until you can't pull any more, and then you pull some more.

It's as taxing as the federal bureaucracy. It's as exciting as, well, the federal bureaucracy.

"It's really boring," Fuller admits. "You just do the same thing, over and over. You'd think everyone would be great at it, but you need incredible dedication."

Fuller was not good enough to make the UCSB varsity her sophomore year. The next season, she was good enough to make the national team.

Since then, Fuller has kept working, improving and piling up honors. She led the UCSB four with coxswain to the national championship in her senior year. She set a 2,000-meter ergometer world record with a time of 6 minutes 27 seconds.

And she surprised the U.S. rowing establishment by earning a place on the women's four without coxswain, the priority U.S. Olympic boat. As a rower known for her strength, she had been considered better suited for the eight, where power is at a premium and minor technical flaws are less noticeable.

"We all knew that Amy was an incredible erger," says Shelagh Donohoe, one of Fuller's boat mates in Spain. "We all knew that she had incredible power. But we didn't realize how well she's learned to move a boat."

"You can't just pull your guts out in a four," says Carol Feeney, another boat mate. "Amy showed that she's much more than a power rower."

It is mid-August, and Fuller has not stepped into a rowboat since the first of the month, the day she, Donohoe, Feeney and Cindy Eckert rowed, rowed, rowed their boat into history as the first U.S. women's four without coxswain to medal at the Olympics. She has been in a canoe, a sailboat, a motorboat and that star-studded cruise liner that Sports Illustrated rented for its Barcelona bash, but not a rowboat. Not yet.

She has, however, watched a videotape of herself in a rowboat, winning a silver medal. Dozens of times. Giggling, she readies her VCR once more at her Westlake Village home.

There she is before the start of the final, telling herself to relax, to focus, to keep her stroke simple.

The race begins. Truth be told, there isn't much to see. Rowing does not make for scintillating television. The boats glide straight ahead, shortening leads, lengthening them, shortening them again. Were it not for the occasional rower close-ups, you would think you were watching one of those electronic dot races they show between innings on Diamond Vision. NBC cuts away in mid-race for commercials, and for a film clip of Feeney explaining why the quartet named their boat "Avatrice," Greek for "gods who walk the Earth as women."

At one point, the camera focuses on the U.S. boat. Fuller's face is anguished, contorted. She looks as if she is screaming bloody murder. She isn't, though. She is just rowing.

"Great," Fuller says, rolling her eyes. "This is really how I wanted the whole nation to see me."

The boats approach the finish. Canada completes a wire-to-wire victory. Germany and China move up on the United States as the crews cross the line.

"They know they've got that silver medal," NBC announcer Mike Vespoles crows.

"No, we don't," Fuller says. At the time, the scoreboard was flashing PHOTO FINISH, nothing more.

Vespoles waxes poetic: "On their faces, you can see the agony . . . the ecstasy."

"No ecstasy yet, honey," Fuller retorts. She stops the tape.

Eventually, of course, the results were posted: Canada, then the United States, then Germany. The rest of the afternoon was a blur of shrieks and hugs and laughter and tears and I-don't-believe-its and swigs of champagne that made the scene even blurrier. The ecstasy was on.

The Olympic memories flash through Fuller's mind, and she smiles, again and again. She remembers the view of the Mediterranean from her room in the Olympic Village, the trays full of imported beer at the Sports Illustrated party, the letter from Uncle Normie ("Stay focused. . . . your muscles know what to do. . . . relax into the pain. . . . go for it, for yourself"), the postrace celebration, the closing ceremonies.

She remembers leading her boat mates in a rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," meeting Jennifer Capriati, seeing Charles Barkley on the street, arriving at LAX to find a throng of "Amy Fuller--Silver Medalist" T-shirts and "Amy Fuller for President" signs waiting for her at the gate.

"My whole life, this has been my dream," she says. "Now it's reality. I can't believe it's all over."

Is it all over? It is for Donohoe, Feeney and Eckert, all of whom retired the day they struck silver. Fuller still thinks she has a bit of catch-release-drive-recovery left. The question is, how much?

"I'm going to stick with it in '93," Fuller says. "I don't know about '96, though. So many things can happen between now and then. I look back at how hard I've worked these last four years, and I just don't think I could do it again."

Even with an Olympic medal, Fuller would be unlikely to clear more than $5,000 this year from rowing. A biology major with a 3.43 grade-point average at UCSB, she would like to attend graduate school, perhaps as a precursor to a career in sports medicine.

The more Fuller talks, though, the more she starts to sound like a 1996 Olympian.

"Sure, I'd love to go to the Olympics again. . . .

"I can still get exponentially better at this sport. . . .

"I might stick with it for one more year, then decide to do it for one more year, then decide that since the Olympics are only two years away, I might as well go for it again. . . .

"In this sport, if you don't decide 100 percent that you're not going to do it, that you're never getting into a boat again, you're going to end up doing it. You just get sucked back in."

Fuller plans to resume training in September. She swears she isn't sure about 1996, about where her path will lead, but you get the feeling that, barring injuries, it will wind up in Atlanta. And maybe, just maybe, those two nameless women will be watching, smiling, knowing that they were partly responsible for the twists that path has taken.

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