There are no birds singing beside the Potomac River this 6 a.m. The clouds are dark and heavy with the rain that will soon be falling. The first commuters are rolling along George Washington Parkway. And Eric Meyers, wearing blue tights and a knit cap, is under Key Bridge, getting ready for a two-hour row.
After 15 years of early morning training for college regattas, Olympic trials and world championships, Meyers has stopped expecting rosy-fingered dawns. If you want to beat East Germans, he says, you have to take what the river will give you.
In Washington's small, broad-backed rowing community, kept afloat by half a dozen Virginia high school teams, three college crews and a dwindling core of postcollegiate competitors, overwork is a given and zealotry almost expected. But even in that company, Meyers, a 32-year-old Washington attorney, is considered an extraordinary oarsman.
"There are a lot of people obsessed with this sport, but Eric Meyers is the only one crazy enough to chip through the ice to row," said Jenny Kramer, a Washington and Lee High School rower.
Every winter, Meyers is the last to remove his racing scull from the Potomac and the first to relaunch it. One February, he chipped footholds in the ice with a pick axe to reach the river. In January, with the Potomac frozen, Meyers took his 26-foot scull, which looks like a popsicle stick sharpened at both ends and which weighs just 30 pounds, onto the C&O Canal.
"You get some funny reactions from people along the canal," said Meyers, who has a strong, fair-skinned face and brown eyes that seem too clear for the time of day. At an age when most former college jocks are measuring their beer bellies, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Meyers looks like an ad for a health club. "One guy walking across Chain Bridge leaned over and yelled at me, 'Are you crazy?'"
Meyers will admit to a certain addiction to his sport. But then he was infected by a heavy dose of early success. In 1969, when he was still a sophomore at Georgetown, he made the U.S. national rowing team. It was heady stuff for a javelin thrower from Pittsburgh who had only been rowing two years.
During the next decade, Meyers went to law school, married and still maintained his grueling training schedule and his world-class form. Every year, he made it to the final cut for the national or Olympic team. Every year, some mental error or mechanical mishap swamped his bid.
"People were always saying, 'If I were you I would have given up long ago,' " Meyers said.
Then, last year, after a decade of frustration, Meyers again qualified for the U.S. team. Friends predict the flush from that victory will keep him competing another 10 years.
"Eric is not usual. He's driven," said Mike Mason, a former teammate at Georgetown who is now an assistant state's attorney for Montgomery County. "I think for Eric, rowing is something he needs."
From Key Bridge, on a cold, wet day, rowing might seem to require some abnormal dedication. For the nonrower, the sport combines the sex appeal of bowling with the money-making potential of shuffleboard. If you excel at the sport, and are willing to put in the long hours, you might have a shot at a high school coaching job.
"I guess we're a little crazy for doing it," said Bob Spousta, Meyers' double-sculls partner the past two years in the national championships and the varsity men's coach at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "But I see a lot of people doing things I think are crazy."
Spousta, who is a year older than Meyers, is one of the half-dozen elite competitors in that age group from this area who are still rowing. Most are former Georgetown students who competed during the late '60s and early '70s, a period remembered as a golden era for Georgetown and area rowing.
That was before John Thompson made basketball more than an embarassment for the Hoyas. It was also before the school dropped its physical education requirements.
"Everybody had to participate in some kind of sport and rowing attracted the best athletes in the school," said Meyers, who may have been the most eligible athlete in his freshman class.
"I remember the first time we saw Eric was in the freshman weight room," said Mason, who was a year ahead of Meyers. "The varsity came in and saw this guy hanging upside down from some overhead rungs, doing situps with a 50-pound weight hugged to his chest. We just looked at him awestruck."
On race days, when the rest of the Georgetown crew sat waiting for the start of competition, Mason remembers Meyers out on the streets sprinting from bus stop to bus stop.
"Belonging to crew at Georgetown was hardly a sacrifice," Meyers said with a chuckle after finishing a 15-mile row on the Potomac. "We had all these great boats to jump in, a special place offcampus to go to (Potomac Boat House) and crew parties that were legend."
But now, more than a decade later, Meyers cannot explain his water habit as easily. Where there was once the camaraderie of the team, there is now a solitary pursuit. And if Meyers does go to parties, he must leave before 10 p.m. or risk falling asleep.
"I just love the Potomac. It's almost animal, constantly changing and shifting," Meyers said, allowing himself a mystic moment before returning to a more characteristic humor.
"In college, the father of one of my teammates told him, 'I should have known you'd pick a sport where you sit on your butt and go backwards.' "