Skip to main content

SOLITARY PURSUIT RUTH DAVIDON IS A MED STUDENT AND A PH.D. CANDIDATE, BUT THIS SUMMER ALL SHE WANTS TO BE IS THE WORLD'S BEST SCULLER

Author:

Ruth Davidon is on a StairMaster at Gold's Gym in Arlington,
Va., across the Potomac from the nation's capital. She would be
on the river itself, rowing, but she has reluctantly moved her
training to terra firma because of a cracked rib. She competes
with cracked ribs as a matter of course. In fact, she rowed with
a cracked rib to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic rowing team.
(She'll race in the women's single sculls.) Between competitions
she sometimes even lets the ribs heal. Then she gets back in her
boat and cracks them again. In the past four years she has had
11 rib fractures. Her ribs crack because she pulls so hard. Her
tolerance for pain is abnormal. But, then, so is she.

Davidon is 32 years old, a third-year medical school student at
Johns Hopkins and a doctoral candidate in immunology at Harvard.
In her spare time--that phrase is not intended to be a joke--she
works in soup kitchens, volunteers in shelters for battered
women and builds houses for low-income families. Recently
Davidon took in a "smushed" cat, as she described it, that she
found lying on the side of a road. Somehow she finds time to eat
(as much as 6,000 calories a day, the amount most people eat in
three days) and sleep (eight or nine hours at night, plus an
hour or two between workouts). By necessity and disposition, she
makes every moment of her life productive.

At this particular moment Davidon is on the StairMaster in
Arlington, where she lives. It is a weekday in spring, about 6
p.m., and the gym is crammed with the postwork crowd, the way
corner bars were once crammed after quitting time in the days
when bodies were not temples. To the rower's left and right are
flabby women in spandex on other step machines. They are
ignoring the magazines positioned at their painted fingertips.
The glow from a silent TV fills their bored, moist faces. These
women are you and I, exercising out of some vague sense of duty.
They are nothing like their neighbor. Davidon's face--crimson,
with rivulets of sweat streaming down it--is filled with agony.
She is pushing, pushing, pushing. Her body is a temple in
extremis. She is nearly six feet tall, weighs 160 pounds, and
her arms are so sinewy and her shoulders so broad that she
brings to mind Michelangelo's David. Her nose is stuck in a
thick book at Chapter 17: Fatty Acid and Triacylglycero
Metabolism. She has a big test coming up, and it is not a heat
in Atlanta.

Sometimes after her workouts she vomits. "Isn't that your body's
way of saying you're overdoing it?" she is asked. She is being
trailed for a day or two by an advocate of the devil, and she
answers his heretical questions with bemused candor.

"You have to overdo it if you want to win a gold," Davidon says.
"Is that such a worthwhile goal?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

"Because if you're going to do something, you should do it as
well as you possibly can," she says patiently. "I want to be the
fastest rower in the world."

Davidon could argue the other side, if pressed. She could argue
that rowing is an immensely selfish activity that does nothing
to benefit the family of man. Debate is part of her training
too. In the 1960s and '70s, when Davidon was growing up in
Haverford, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, her parents, active
Quakers, protested first the war in Vietnam and, later, the
proliferation of nuclear weapons. On their way to rallies,
Ruth's father, William, then a professor of physics at Haverford
College, would ask his oldest daughter to take contrary
positions just for the sake of debate. "The idea was to make her
more independent in her thinking," says the now retired
professor. "People who grow accustomed to following others are
not the ones who stand out in their field."

Ruth stands out in her field(s). She took up rowing as a
freshman in high school. She was walking down a corridor one day
at the Baldwin School, an academically elite girls' private
school on the Main Line, when the rowing coach, struck by Ruth's
height, asked her to give rowing a try. She liked it. Before
long, she was explaining to relatives the difference between
rowing and canoeing, which is the unofficial pastime of Quaker
Philadelphia.

After Baldwin, Davidon enrolled at Amherst College, for its
academics. Rowing was a secondary thought. But she signed up for
the team, and as a freshman she was placed on the varsity squad,
rowing in an eight and taking the seat of an upperclasswoman.
This created, by Davidon's recollection, much turmoil. Petty
jealousies emerged among her teammates, and Davidon was unhappy.
Even after she decided to leave Amherst's low-key rowing program
following the fall semester of her freshman year, cryptic
Davidon-bashing by her ex-mates continued. She remembers a sign
being posted: AMHERST CREW IS RUTHLESS. She proceeded with the
sport but in a single scull, rowing independently and only for
recreation. She had learned a valuable lesson early: Teammates
can be unreliable.

Although Davidon is now a member of the U.S. rowing team, she
often trains on her own. Her coach is her husband, Eric
Beinhocker (who also works as a business consultant).
Beinhocker, who rowed at Dartmouth, became engaged to Davidon in
1990 when he was a graduate business student at MIT and she was
working at a Harvard research lab. Both rowed on Boston's
Charles River for pleasure. In time it became apparent that
Davidon--because of her rowing technique, her outlandish
dedication to fitness and her immense capacity for work--could
become the fastest woman single sculler in the country and
possibly the world. She stopped rowing for pleasure. She started
rowing with a gold medal in mind.

Her days are grueling, and she avoids anything that might make
them easier. She gets around Arlington, for the most part, on an
18-speed, 11-year-old Peugeot bicycle, and she always pedals as
hard as possible. Some days she expends a final bit of energy by
calling the pizza-delivery guy. ("Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli,
pesto, extra red sauce, on a whole-wheat crust. And please be
generous with the vegetables.") The cats--Anna, Katya,
Atlanta--get some attention. The magazines (Scientific American,
The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly) get less. As for
Beinhocker, he's somewhere between the formerly smushed Atlanta
and The Economist. "It takes an incredibly understanding
husband," Davidon says. "There have been times when we've
wondered if it's worth it. We came to the conclusion that this
is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Davidon has made other sacrifices too. She is not making trips
to Third World countries to start health clinics and provide
vaccinations for children, even though she would like to. (In
1985, while building a clinic in Nicaragua, Davidon contracted
malaria and lost 30 pounds.) Although she has completed her
immunology course work, she isn't even thinking about writing
her doctoral dissertation now. As for medical school, she's on
partial leave until after the Olympics. But even during intense
training she makes regular visits to Johns Hopkins to consult on
her studies and work with patients.

It is another day. Davidon is at the Johns Hopkins Hospital,
taking a patient's history. The patient is a 22-year-old man,
once a schoolboy basketball player, now ghastly thin and bruised
from the intrusive ways of modern medicine. The man, Matt
Mihelcic, has a severe liver disorder. He wears a hospital gown.
Tubes and wires are attached to his frail chest. In his right
hand he grips a water bottle, just as Davidon does on her
exercise machines. She wears a lab coat. She has a thermometer
in her pocket and a stethoscope around her neck.

She asks Mihelcic to squeeze her fingers. "Squeeze as hard as
you can," she says. She's pushing him, and he's pushing himself.
"Harder," she says. He makes a face, mirroring Davidon's look on
the StairMaster, the face of the athlete in agony. "Good!" she
says.

She leaves the room. The experience has moved her. She is
somber, lost in thought. In two days she will head to New Mexico
to train at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet. The harder, the
better. But now she is thinking about her patient and about the
fragility of life. She loves her sport, but healing is her
life's work. She is struck by Mihelcic's will. "The resilience
of the human body," she says. "That's the great thing."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL EPPRIDGE AN UNHAPPY EXPERIENCE ROWING EIGHTS LED DAVIDON (AT THE TRIALS IN GAINESVILLE, GA.) TO TRY SINGLE SCULLS [Ruth Davidon rowing]

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER AT JOHNS HOPKINS, DAVIDON HAS LEARNED FIRSTHAND ABOUT THE STRENGTH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT [Ruth Davidon examining patient]