ATHENS, Aug. 21 -- Aquil Abdullah has held every job from moving furniture to molecular modeling. He has jammed on stage with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. On Saturday, he rowed in the final of the men's double sculls at the 2004 Olympics. What's next for the saxophone-playing District native with a physics degree from George Washington?
"That kind of depends on what other opportunities I have," Abdullah said, smiling broadly. "I might go into the single [sculls] for a while or maybe try my hand at sweep. Or it may be time for me to hang up my oars."
Abdullah returns to Washington after his first Olympics without a medal, but hardly without a sense of achievement.
With just five months' practice together, he and U.S. Navy officer Henry Nuzum earlier this week became the first American men to qualify for the Olympic final in double sculls in 20 years. On Saturday, they faced off against the sport's elite and finished sixth, crossing the finish at the Schinias Olympic Rowing Center 3.93 seconds off the bronze medal-winning pace.
Defending world champions Sebastien Vieilledent and Adrien Hardy of France won gold (6 minutes 29 seconds). Slovenia's Luka Spik and Iztok Cop, the defending Olympic champions, took silver (6:31.72). And Italians Rossano Galtarossa and Alessio Sartori claimed bronze (6:32.93).
"I had a chance to line up against the best in the world today and see where I stand," said Abdullah, 31. "It's a rare opportunity for any individual to really test themselves in that type of arena, and I was pleased with our performance."
Abdullah made history in becoming the first black male to qualify for a U.S. Olympic rowing team. Asked about the achievement, he pointed out that former Olympic rower Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee, broke the sport's color barrier before him. He views his presence among the sport's elite ranks as meaningful only to the extent it inspires others to give rowing a try.
"If people see rowing as something that they can do just because they see me, then my job is done," Abdullah said. "I was raised to believe that 'Each one teaches one.' So hopefully, I've added something to someone's else's life."
Abdullah started rowing as a high school student at Woodrow Wilson. He took to it quickly and soon lost track of the hours and miles logged on the Potomac, building his endurance and perfecting his technique.
He blossomed into one of the country's fastest in single sculls but missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics by 0.33 of a second. The heartache that comes with having come so close is part of what made Charley Butt, as assistant coach for the men's national team, want to pair him in double sculls with Nuzum, one of the country's more powerful rowers.
"Henry is one of the strongest men on the regatta, and Aquil has a lot of ability," said Butt, a McLean native who is Harvard's men's lightweight coach. "I knew he was very hungry because he lost the Olympic spot in 2000 by just that much. I saw a lot of desire, ability and belief in himself."
Some rowing partnerships work because the athletes are so similar. Others work despite the rowers' differences. Abdullah and Nuzum fell into the second category, but it wasn't clear in the early going that it would work at all.
"There were times in practice when it wasn't going well, and I'd idle my boat over and say, 'Hang in there! You can do it!' " Butt recalled after Saturday's race. "They said, 'It's been worse! Don't worry, we'll be okay.' When people are determined to make it work, it works. And they just made up their minds that they were going to do it."
Qualifying for the final was their first major achievement. A helicopter whirred overhead as the boats lined up for Saturday's start. Abdullah and Nuzum were in Lane 1, with the grandstands on their left and the Estonian boat on their right. Their strategy was to keep pace with the Estonians through the first 600 meters, then sprint all out for the finish.
"We knew people were going to be going for it -- that there was only one shot," Abdullah said. "We were just hoping that somebody's strategy would misfire and we would move up. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone's did."
Said Nuzum, 27: "It was great to be among such high-caliber athletes. We've come a long way from March, and in a lot of ways we were happy to be here. But we still wanted to medal."