Aboard the USS John S. McCain in the Persian Gulf, Lt. j.g. Henry Nuzum had no rowing machine. No boat. No glassy Charles River seemingly made for rowing.
While at sea, the Olympic rower tried to spend at least an hour each day on the ship's stationary bike, but sometimes found himself so busy that eight or nine days would pass without any exercise at all. At least when he was docked in Japan, Nuzum could run the four miles each way to work, a tight 30-minute commute that ensured he never had to wait in traffic.
After 19 months of service, including 219 days at sea, Nuzum returned to the United States with just a year to prepare for the 2004 Olympics. Not in his best shape, Nuzum bounced around in quadruple, double and single sculls, pairing with District native Aquil Abdullah in March.
But the pair, who had first rowed together in 2001 in the quadruple scull, weren't sold on themselves as a winning tandem. In June, just four days before the National Selection Regatta in New Jersey, both were searching for new partners. They failed in that attempt, but won their race, cementing their partnership -- at least for the push to the Athens Games.
After another bump in the road -- a 10th-place finish in a World Cup race in Munich in which fourth or higher would have guaranteed them a slot at the Games -- they came into the double sculls final at the Olympic trials on June 30 needing a win to earn a trip to Athens.
Placing nerves, anxiety and expectations on hold, Nuzum and Abdullah held off Adam Holland and Ken Jurkowski by nearly three seconds in a commanding victory.
"There was a sense of relief," said Abdullah. "But there was also a sense of joy as well. It took a while for it to settle in. I had been so focused on that moment."
Abdullah, who missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics in the single scull by .33 of a second, erased four years of questions and frustrations, although those frustrations were rarely felt by Abdullah himself.
"I haven't given too much thought to what happened in 2000," said Abdullah, a 1996 graduate of George Washington University. "There was no sense of vindication. My philosophy is to try to be in the moment."
For the next six weeks, almost all of those moments will be devoted to intensive Olympic preparations. Many of the pair's international competitors have been rowing in tandem since before the Sydney Games, enough time to ensure a steady rhythm.
But Nuzum and Abdullah insist that their newbie status isn't all bad.
"It does mean we have a steeper learning curve," Nuzum said. "I can't complain about it because I was in Japan for 19 months. If it's anybody's fault, it's mine. While it's not ideal, it's neat to have palpable progress in a short amount of time. I certainly don't dwell on the fact that we're new together. The clock doesn't care."
Nuzum and Abdullah balance each other in and out of the boat. The more physically imposing of the duo, Nuzum brings greater power and strength, while Abdullah's efficiency on the water has enabled him to beat his partner in single sculls every time they have raced.
"You are dealing with very, very complex personalities," said Kris Korzeniowski, who has coached them off and on since 2001. "Very strange dudes and very funny. Very pleasant to work with, but sometimes they can drive you crazy, I mean in [a] positive way. They keep you on your toes. That is the situation when you deal with superb, intelligent athletes. That's good and bad because you have 100 different questions and they overanalyze everything. [Nuzum's] ready to write [a] PhD paper on how to put [the] blade into the water."
While their political views might not mesh -- leading to some animated conversations -- Nuzum and Abdullah have been forced to understand their sport within a larger context. For Abdullah it was the disappointment of a narrow loss and a rededication to thinking about the future instead of the past. For Nuzum it was a head-on collision with realities outside the insulated world of Olympic-quality athletes.
Nuzum, who was involved in Navy ROTC while studying at Harvard, said the Navy has accommodated his athletic pursuits while still demanding that he serve out his commitment, including duty aboard a ship.
"As a young athlete coming out of Sydney, it would have been hard if the Navy had said, 'Sure, row all four years,' " he said. "I don't know if I could have resisted the temptation."
But the Navy's requirements had a significant effect on the rower who barely had his diploma in hand when he made his first Olympic team in 2000.
"The responsibility that a young officer is entrusted with forces pretty quick learning," said Nuzum, who failed to make the double scull final in Sydney. "It forced me to change some of the ways I operated. I had some difficulty adjusting. It's empowering to be in a position of responsibility where your performance has pretty serious consequences. It humbles you. It makes you take it pretty seriously. At this time too, service is especially rewarding considering the threats we're facing as a country.
"As a young college rower, that's sort of the dream to make the Olympic team. That was my sole focus. [Serving in the Navy] made me realize that ultimately the Olympics are only a game. A pretty competitive game, but still just a game. . . . It helps to take some of the pressure off. When you're out on the ship, the stakes are a little different than when you're racing. It reminds you that ultimately it's just for fun. I don't want to minimize the focus and intensity that people dedicate to it, and I'm grateful for their dedication to it, but for me it's reordered my priorities a bit."
Nuzum's stint in the Navy has had some lighter consequences as well. Last year he was chosen to represent the Navy on a special edition Cheerios box that contained an athlete from each branch of the military and was sold in base commissaries. He was a bit surprised at the chance to make the front of his father's favorite cereal after his eighth-place finish in Sydney. But at least his buddies got a good laugh out of it, he said.
Abdullah has been faced with different choices than his younger counterpart. He acknowledged that he has contemplated retirement from the sport, which would have happened this year had he not qualified for the Olympics. Without rowing, the "accomplished musician" as Nuzum called him, would have more time to focus on playing the saxophone and guitar.
Despite his position as the first black male to make a U.S. rowing team, Abdullah seems loath to become a symbol or be associated with breaking barriers in his sport.
"The only race that I'm concerned about is the one where I cross the finish line first," he said. "For me it's not an issue. Do I have a responsibility? Yes. But not because I'm the first black male rower. I have a responsibility to humankind to be the best that I can be. I've been given so much in life and in rowing. If you get a lot, you're supposed to give a lot."
For now, the goal for the two men is to make the final in Athens. Charlie Butt Jr., Harvard's varsity lightweight crew coach who has been working with them for the past two months, said there are four boats that are definitely faster than Nuzum and Abdullah. But with an improvement of just four to five seconds -- not an impossible goal -- they could be right there with the favorites.
Both seem cautiously confident as they dig in for the last push toward the starting line. Each brings with him the experience of seeing such an athletic goal slip swiftly and stealthily through his fingers.
Together the oddly matched duo has fought against the perception, shared by Korzeniowski, that the two have never been a perfectly natural pair.
"Some scullers jump in and feel each other," Korzeniowski said.
"This combination needs to work, to focus on rowing and technical skill. I think they made really nice, good improvements since they came back from [Munich]. Usually I call them 'rowing invalids,' but they started to look like a boat, like a double. Good synchronization, good rhythm. There is plenty of room to improve."