Ruth stands out in her field(s). She took up rowing as a freshman in high school. She was walking down a corridor one day at the Baldwin School, an academically elite girls' private school on the Main Line, when the rowing coach, struck by Ruth's height, asked her to give rowing a try. She liked it. Before long, she was explaining to relatives the difference between rowing and canoeing, which is the unofficial pastime of Quaker Philadelphia.
After Baldwin, Davidon enrolled at Amherst College, for its academics. Rowing was a secondary thought. But she signed up for the team, and as a freshman she was placed on the varsity squad, rowing in an eight and taking the seat of an upperclasswoman. This created, by Davidon's recollection, much turmoil. Petty jealousies emerged among her teammates, and Davidon was unhappy. Even after she decided to leave Amherst's low-key rowing program following the fall semester of her freshman year, cryptic Davidon-bashing by her ex-mates continued. She remembers a sign being posted: AMHERST CREW is RUTHLESS. She proceeded with the sport but in a single scull, rowing independently and only for recreation. She had learned a valuable lesson early: Teammates can be unreliable.
Although Davidon is now a member of the U.S. rowing team, she often trains on her own. Her coach is her husband, Eric Beinhocker (who also works as a business consultant). Beinhocker, who rowed at Dartmouth, became engaged to Davidon in 1990 when he was a graduate business student at MIT and she was working at a Harvard research lab. Both rowed on Boston's Charles River for pleasure. In time it became apparent that Davidon—because of her rowing technique, her outlandish dedication to fitness and her immense capacity for work—could become the fastest woman single sculler in the country and possibly the world. She stopped rowing for pleasure. She started rowing with a gold medal in mind.
Her days are grueling, and she avoids anything that might make them easier. She gets around Arlington, for the most part, on an 18-speed, 11-year-old Peugeot bicycle, and she always pedals as hard as possible. Some days she expends a final bit of energy by calling the pizza-delivery guy. ("Mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, pesto, extra red sauce, on a whole-wheat crust. And please be generous with the vegetables.") The cats—Anna, Katya, Atlanta—get some attention. The magazines (Scientific American, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly) get less. As for Beinhocker, he's somewhere between the formerly smushed Atlanta and The Economist. "It takes an incredibly understanding husband," Davidon says. "There have been times when we've wondered if it's worth it. We came to the conclusion that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Davidon has made other sacrifices too. She is not making trips to Third World countries to start health clinics and provide vaccinations for children, even though she would like to. (In 1985, while building a clinic in Nicaragua, Davidon contracted malaria and lost 30 pounds.) Although she has completed her immunology course work, she isn't even thinking about writing her doctoral dissertation now. As for medical school, she's on partial leave until after the Olympics. But even during intense training she makes regular visits to Johns Hopkins to consult on her studies and work with patients.
It is another day. Davidon is at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, taking a patient's history. The patient is a 22-year-old man, once a schoolboy basketball player, now ghastly thin and bruised from the intrusive ways of modern medicine. The man, Matt Mihelcic, has a severe liver disorder. He wears a hospital gown. Tubes and wires are attached to his frail chest. In his right hand he grips a water bottle, just as Davidon does on her exercise machines. She wears a lab coat. She has a thermometer in her pocket and a stethoscope around her neck.
She asks Mihelcic to squeeze her fingers. "Squeeze as hard as you can," she says. She's pushing him, and he's pushing himself. "Harder," she says. He makes a face, mirroring Davidon's look on the StairMaster, the face of the athlete in agony. "Good!" she says.
She leaves the room. The experience has moved her. She is somber, lost in thought. In two days she will head to New Mexico to train at an altitude of more than 5,000 feet. The harder, the better. But now she is thinking about her patient and about the fragility of life. She loves her sport, but healing is her life's work. She is struck by Mihelcic's will. "The resilience of the human body," she says. "That's the great thing."