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?"
"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."