A Woman With a Lot of Pull

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite an early baptism in water sports, Olympian Amy Fuller began her career as a world-class rower on a whim.

Fuller, from Westlake Village, joined the club rowing team with a classmate at UC Santa Barbara nine years ago with every intention of keeping her involvement in the sport casual. But casual has never been part of Fuller's athletic vocabulary.

"I was convinced I was not going to let the sport rule my life," Fuller said in a recent telephone interview from the Olympic training site in Oakridge, Tenn. "Two weeks after we joined my friend had quit the team and here I am."

Here for Fuller means the Summer Games, and she is about to enjoy her second Olympic experience. Fuller, 28, was a silver medalist in the 1992 Barcelona Games and is back as part of the defending world champion U.S. team with a chance at gold.

Dreams of Olympic hardware first drew Fuller to the water. She was a Junior Olympic age-group swimmer and before she hit her teens showed world-class dedication.

Daily practices for her youth swim team in Simi Valley began at 5 a.m. and Fuller's mother agreed to take her--but only if her daughter woke her up. So each morning five days a week, young Amy set her alarm clock, knocked on her mother's door and headed to the pool for predawn workouts.

Sensibly, it seems, she grew tired of that regimen. She quit swimming by the time she reached high school but she couldn't stay out of the water. As a freshman at Westlake High, she earned a starting position on the boys' water polo team. She quickly became a top scorer and just as fast became an outcast.

"The boys devised a plan to stop passing me the ball," she said. "I didn't see it then as a big feminist issue. I just thought the boys were being stupid."

When she suffered a broken ankle only a few matches into the season, she was actually relieved.

Fuller turned to basketball and finished her high school career as a two-time team MVP and an All-Marmonte League center. But when she enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, she brought with her no athletic aspirations.

Away from sports, Fuller "went completely out of control. I had all this free time and I was very efficient at wasting it."

Perhaps, then, Fuller was ripe for a challenge as a UCSB sophomore when she agreed to give rowing a try. She stepped into a boat for the first time in November 1987. Eighteen months later, she was a member of the U.S. national team.

For her remarkable ascension as a world-class rower, Fuller can thank the ergometer, the rowing machine that measures individual prowess.

National team coaches won't even look at rowers until they can demonstrate strength on the ergometer. Weeks after she started the sport, the UCSB club team hit the ergometer. No one hit it harder than Fuller--no one at UCSB and no one in the country.

A career was born. Three times since, Fuller, 5 feet 11 and 180 pounds, has won the ergometer world championship and remains one of the world's best--and consequently strongest--rowers.

Of course, now she hates the machine. Undergoing the test, which measures strength and endurance in a simulated 2,000-meter race, is nothing short of excruciating, she said.

"People would ask me how I could hate something I was so good at," she said. "But it's just so painful. It's like, ready . . . set . . . suffer."

But test scores alone didn't place Fuller on the national team. As the rowing credo goes, ergs don't float.

Attending a series of camps and working tirelessly--a fact of life in the grueling world of rowing--landed Fuller on the national team in 1989. Three years later, she was wearing a silver medal in Barcelona as a member of the women's four without a coxswain.

Her whirlwind journey through the sport, from cavalier start to Olympic medal stand, left Fuller dazed. The trip still seems like a blur--except for the opening ceremonies at the Barcelona Games.

"Everything happened fast and I don't think it all entirely hit me until the Spanish team entered the stadium on the opening day," she said. "The ovation was so thunderous, I thought the stadium was going to crumble. No way was I going to miss Atlanta."

The road from Barcelona to Georgia was bumpy, however. Only weeks after she won a medal, her event--the women's four without a coxswain--was eliminated from the Olympics to make room for weight-class events.

Not surprisingly, given the hardships of training and the life of relative poverty that awaited her, Fuller nearly joined the other three members of the medal-winning team in retirement. Enter national team coach Hartmut Buschbacher, an East German immigrant who has taken the U.S. women's team from the sport's fringes to the brink of a gold medal.

Buschbacher flew to California after the 1992 Olympics to persuade Fuller to stay on the team and go for the gold in '96.

He must have been persuasive. After only mild agonizing, Fuller returned to the team. Surprisingly, the elimination of the women's four without a coxswain from the Olympics helped convince her to come back.

She joined the women's eight team. With eight rowers and a coxswain slicing through the water in a long, sleek boat, the event is the sport's showcase and the one most familiar to the casual sports fan.

"After winning the silver medal, I had my sights set on the eight anyway," Fuller said. "It's the trickiest and most demanding sport."

Fuller always has been equal to the demands of the sport, Buschbacher said.

"I always liked Amy's work ethic," Buschbacher said. "She came back with all these younger athletes on the team and did a wonderful job. She didn't want any special treatment and worked hard every day at every task. She set an example for the younger athletes."

Leadership comes naturally to Fuller, according to Yaz Farooq, coxswain on the women's eight and Fuller's friend for the past eight years.

"Fuller is very positive and is an uplifting presence in the boat," she said. "She's a good crisis manager. We always believe whatever race we face, that with Fuller we can win."

*

Fuller enjoyed a lesson in can-do spirit--and a healthy break from the monotony of training--when she was selected from among 1,000 candidates in the spring of 1995 for the 30-member all-women's crew of the Mighty Mary that competed in the America's Cup challenge. With Fuller at starboard aft grinder--which is nearly as gruesome as it sounds, she said--the Mighty Mary finished second to Dennis Connor's Team Stars & Stripes.

Fuller doesn't expect the women to lose in Atlanta. The U.S. is the favorite to win the gold in the women's eight, but after all these years of pointing toward No. 1, Fuller is trying to convince herself that it doesn't matter.

"I have extreme confidence in the team but as we get closer to the Olympics and we get more nervous, you have to realize that it's not everything," she said. "When you think that it all comes down to six minutes over 2,000 meters, it can drive you crazy. My family will still love me if we don't win the gold. You have to think that way or you'll have a meltdown."

Meltdown or not, Fuller knows it's time to slow down. After the Olympics, she said, she will retire . . . and this time she means it. She plans to study for her master's degree in biology, and after a delightful season coaching at UCSB she is considering a career as a coach.

Unless, of course, another whim turns her into a competitor again.

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