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National rowing champ's credo: Hard Work

Saturday, October 05, 2002

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Regardless of ethnicity or race, I am a simple individual who has learned that one has to work hard to get where one hopes to arrive. Perhaps this is no great lesson. We will never be the best we can be until we work as hard as we can and push ourselves to a limit we create every single day."

-- Excerpt from the book "Perfect Balance" by Aquil Abdullah.

There was a time when national champion sculler Aquil Abdullah questioned where he belonged.

Sculler Aquil Abdullah practices yesterday in the channel around Washington's Landing. Abdullah, the first African-American male to become a national champion single sculler, will compete today in the Mercy Hospital Head of the Ohio 16th Annual Rowing Regatta. Click here for basics on when and where to see the regatta, a free admission event. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Was it in the predominantly white world of the sport he loved or among his fellow African Americans, most of whom knew little about it?

The answer, he said, "was the realization that I had to be Aquil Abdullah and that rowing was a part of my life. And once I came to terms with that, everything else fell into place."

Abdullah, 28, is the first African-American male to become a national champion single sculler. If a rower holds two oars, it's called sculling. If he or she holds one oar, it's called rowing.

Abdullah, a native of Washington, D.C., who lives and trains in Princeton, N.J., will compete in the Mercy Hospital Head of the Ohio 16th Annual Rowing Regatta today.

The event, held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the Allegheny River, brings together high school, college, corporate, competitive, club, amateur and masters level athletes from across the United States and Canada. It benefits the Burn Center at Mercy Hospital.

Abdullah was a member of the U.S. 2001 World Championship Rowing Team and the first African-American to win the Diamond Sculls Challenge Cup at the 2000 Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames, England.

Described as the Jackie Robinson of rowing, Abdullah is much more modest about the barriers he's broken.

"I think that it's basically being able to push yourself outside your comfort zone. To me that's the only way to achieve enlightenment or speak knowledgeably about a subject," he said. "I think sometimes people allow how comfortable they are in a situation to hold them back, but I don't think that's the way things should be."

Doing his part to expose others to rowing, Abdullah worked with a program in Boston called Mandela Crew aimed at disadvantaged African-American and Latino youths from the city's Roxbury section.

"It was really a great experience for me. I felt like I was able to give something back and get them to push beyond limits they had previously known," he said.

Abdullah began sculling because he needed a spring sport his senior year of high school and he didn't want to run track.

"I had some friends who had been asking me to row and I decided to try it out," he said. "Within a couple of months I was offered a scholarship to row at George Washington University."

From there Abdullah continued to train three or four hours a day, competing in national and international competitions. He fits work as a computer programming consultant around his sculling schedule.

It was in 2000 after he'd lost the Olympic trials that he began doing a lot of writing about his life to that point. His first sculling coach, Ken Dreyfuss, put him in touch with writer Chris Ingraham, who helped him write "Perfect Balance."

"My goal is to make the 2004 Olympics and then, hopefully, move on to some other things," Abdullah said.

Monica Haynes can be reached at mhaynes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1660.

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