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Olympics 2012: Flying through the air and along the Potomac River

Margot Shumway, left, and Sarah Trowbridge take this regatta in Switzerland to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. (Sigi Tischler/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Sarah Trowbridge laughed as she allowed her memory to take her back. She played 10 sports as a child whose mother encouraged her to try whatever she liked. She swam, dove, kayaked, sailed, skied, pole vaulted and ran track. But it was the odd activity that stands out the most.

“I wanted to try the trapeze,” said Trowbridge, now 29 “She said okay. Well, I was doing gymnastics at the time, so there was a little bit of a link there.”

That’s how she ended up performing with a circus troupe more than a decade ago on the Mall. She even attended a Connecticut circus camp (she despised the days when she had to dress as a clown) and performed in nearly a dozen parades.

All the sports, Trowbridge said, even the trapeze, helped her make an eventual transition to rowing as a senior at her Connecticut high school. The trapeze helped perfect her balance and other sports helped improve her body awareness. Both are crucial to adapting to a teammate and working in unison with a partner, she said.

This summer, Trowbridge will represent the United States in double sculls at the Olympics in London, the culmination of a dream that began when she first saw film of Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who won gold medals in 1976 and 1980.

Trowbridge moved to from Washington to Connecticut as a teenager, attended Guilford High there and earned a rowing scholarship to Michigan. She moved back to the District in 2005 after she graduated.

In 2005, she met Margot Shumway, her future Olympic teammate. The pair spent their mornings, afternoons and evenings together, rowing three times a day on the Potomac River, roughly 20 miles per day. They trained out of the Potomac Boat Club, a picturesque boathouse built in 1908 on the D.C. river bank.

It’s good water, Trowbridge said as she looked out at the river, recently. That’s rower-speak for water that isn’t too rough, water that is good in the morning, water that doesn't freeze quickly.

The Olympic event is 2000 meters, a bit longer than a sprint, Trowbridge said. But she and Shumway train by rowing 4,000 meters upstream, into a narrow pass. You forget you’re in a city, she said, when you’re surrounded by green trees.

Then they turn around and row 10,000 meters downstream, under Key Bridge, past the monuments and memorials and nearly to the runway at Reagan National Airport.

“It’s a beautiful location to train,” Trowbridge said.

Shumway, a 32-year-old Cincinnati native, finished fifth in the quadruple sculls at the 2008 Summer Games. She is helping Trowbridge know what to expect and how to be a consistent race-day performer.

The two also have built a relationship of trust and get along well, something Trowbridge believes is essential to their success. “We’ve always had a good spark,” she said. “It helps that we find ourselves extremely funny. We think each other are the funniest people we know. But we’re also very competitive and trust each other a lot.”

After two near misses, the pair needed a bit of luck to qualify for the Olympics. Last year, they finished ninth in Slovenia at the world rowing championships, a disappointment, Trowbridge said, that left them one spot out of the Olympics. In April, they finished third at the U.S. trials, missing an Olympic berth by one spot again.

But, the two teams that finished ahead of them declined the Olympic invitation, focusing instead on qualifying for the women’s quadruple sculls. This left Trowbridge and Shumway needing to win one more race to qualify for the Olympic team, which they did by placing first at May’s final Olympic qualifying regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.

“I think it was actually a major blessing that we got beat at trials,” said Trowbridge. “Because then it was a check-in — ‘Okay we have a lot of work to do.’ ”

After her rowing career winds down, Trowbridge said, she’s not yet certain of what she wants to do. Her current training and competition schedule leave little time for a job.

She hopes to become a collegiate rowing coach or go abroad to coach the sport, which she said is growing rapidly in the Middle East. Or she said she can put her English degree to use and find what she referred to as a “little bit more typical job.”

If the rowing doesn't work out and a routine job seems a bit boring, Trowbridge might be able to join the circus.

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