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Indoor match brings teen rowing champion off the water

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

By Mike Dongilli

Sitting in a shell, feathering her hatchet when necessary, and looking as if she's out of her "scull" with intensity are all normal for Abby Loughrey.

That's scull as in boat, though the Shaler 17-year-old admits the sport of rowing often makes her head feel as if it will burst with ferocity.

For the unfamiliar, a "hatchet" is an oar blade, and "feathering" the oar means turning it sideways while pulling it back through the air after a stroke.

Other vocabulary -- coxswain, foot stretcher, gunwale, head race -- evokes images of medieval torture as much as sport, which seems fitting when Loughrey explains the misery of a 2,000-meter sprint.

"Pure pain," she said. "You just scream when you're done."

So where's the fun? It's in the win, something the sculling senior from Winchester Thurston High School, a private school in Point Breeze, has done plenty of since she started rowing competitively almost five years ago.

Loughrey, daughter of Nancy and Keith Loughrey of Shaler, has won 10 national championships in the 18-and-under division; is a two-time winner of Boston's Head of the Charles, one of the world's largest races; and has twice made it to the Junior World Rowing Championships.

"From the very beginning, I knew she was a special kid and had a lot of potential. I knew that if she had the interest she could become pretty good," said Dori Martin, one her coaches.

Her talents, along with Martin's, will be on display off the water today -- she is scheduled to compete in the 11th annual "Indoor Row for the Cure," a fund-raiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

There will be no hatchets and no sculls, just four-person teams from local companies, schools and fitness centers embracing the cause. They'll mount Concept II rowing machines in the lobby of the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown, beginning at noon. The winner will be the team logging the most meters in one hour.

Donations come through entry fees and sponsorships. "Already it's the biggest year we've ever had financially, with over $30,000 collected or pledged," said Joe Natoli, chairman of the event. "And, with Abby and Dori, [it is] certainly the most elite group of rowers we've ever featured."

Other teams will split the hour, with each member getting 15 minutes. Loughrey and Martin -- an indoor rowing world champion and five-time U. S. national champion -- will go the entire time themselves. So will Chris Gibson, manager of the hotel's fitness center, who founded the event in 1992, and who, until 1999, held the over-40 lightweight male world record for meters rowed in one hour with 16,623.

"It's our workout for the day," Loughrey said of her and her coach's participation.

A warmup is probably more accurate. Loughrey hones her skills twice a day, Monday through Friday, and once on Saturday.

Her mornings start at 5:30 a.m., training at the Steel City Rowing Club in Verona. After a full day in school, it's back to the club for two to three more hours of running, lifting weights perfecting technique either on the Allegheny River or on club equipment.

It's grueling, but Loughrey asked for it. When she first went to Steel City, she met coach Ladislau Tompa and said, "I want to win; tell me what to do."

The regimen he laid out for her has made her the U.S. best at this level in double sculls -- two rowers, each using two oars -- for the past three years, and earned her a full athletic scholarship at Stanford University starting in the fall.

But that's in the states. Loughrey dreams of being tops in the world and earning Olympic gold, and so far, international racing has been anything but smooth sailing.

Abroad, rowing enjoys more prestige and fields higher caliber competitors. "That was the problem when we went to the worlds the first year [in 1999]," Loughrey said. We won every race and we won them by far in the nation. But when we got out of the United States, where they row a lot, we got our butts kicked."

She trained harder, and anticipated a better showing in the 2001 Junior World Championships in Duisburg, Germany.

Disappointment struck again, when her partner lost control of an oar during a qualifying race, and they lost to Australia -- which ended up placing fourth overall -- by a four-second margin.

The failures haven't sunk her hopes. Loughrey said rowers peak at about 28, and mastering flawless form takes at least a decade.

This year, she decided to concentrate on singles rather than doubles, a switch that, she says, reflects her personality more than having partners. "I'm kind of an independent person -- not very good at group work; never have been. I dread it. I'd rather do it all myself."

Mike Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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