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ATLANTA 1996 / 6 Days To The Games

A Woman With a Lot of Pull

Rowing: Her career began casually enough, now Amy Fuller is about to take part in her second straight Olympics.

July 13, 1996|JOHN LYNCH | 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.

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