Rowing is an odd sport, full of late-bloomers and second-chancers. It's also a sport where someone like Debby De Angelis, who hasn't been in a racing shell for almost a quarter-century, can still consider herself a rower, first and foremost - despite a demanding "day job" as Towson University's associate athletic director for internal operations.
De Angelis, an internationally certified rowing umpire, left Saturday for the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where she will occupy a crucial but almost invisible role on the Control Commission, which oversees every detail in the Olympic rowing events, from the weight of the boats to - in some cases - the weight of the rowers. .
"We're dealing with the before-and-after fairness issues," said De Angelis, sitting in her office at the Towson Center last week. "It's a lot of paperwork and keeping track. ... If I'm doing my job right, you'll never know I'm there."
But she would know if she weren't there, and she'd miss it terribly. De Angelis has attended almost every summer Olympics since 1976, in almost every capacity, from team member to spectator to volunteer to umpire.
"She's committed to rowing because she loves it; that's not rocket science," said Kimberly L. McGarvey, a Pennsylvania health care research analyst who was a coxswain for De Angelis when De Angelis coached at Northeastern University in Boston. "She loves it, she lives it and breathes it."
You could even say she was born to it. De Angelis, 52, is a third-generation rower whose mother and grandmother were presidents of a San Diego rowing club.
When she was age 7, De Angelis saw her first racing shell and was transfixed. She couldn't wait to try sweep rowing and sculling (the former uses one oar, the latter takes two.) But she had to wait. Club rules dictated that a girl could not join until age 15 and could not take a seat in a shell until she had completed 10 rows in one of the old whaling barges.
De Angelis didn't begin to row seriously until the early 1970s, after she graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Initially [I loved it] because it was outdoors," she said. "When you make a boat move right, and you hear the bubbles beneath it, it's an incredible feeling. ... You find a home."
Despite her late start, - and despite a decidedly unathletic childhood during which she skipped gym class as much as possible - De Angelis won a spot on the women's Olympic team in 1976. She lost it almost immediately, after doctors discovered a serious problem with one of her knees. She became the team's assistant manager and marched with the team in the Montreal Olympics, a memory that she said still brings goose bumps.
In 1980, she was on the East German border, waiting with a truck loaded with racing shells in case U.S. Olympians were allowed to compete in the Moscow games.
De Angelis coached at Northeastern and then accepted an administrative job at California State-Northridge. She came to Towson in 1996, and the school has been supportive of her first love, as has her husband, David De Angelis. It has taken her not only to the Olympics but to the world championships almost every year.
Will she row again? She contemplated having knee replacement surgery in her late 40s, joking that she would then compete in the 50-year-old age class. "Maybe it will happen at 60 and maybe not," she said. Women in her family tend to be long-lived, she said, so she would like to put off the surgery as long as possible.
McGarvey thinks De Angelis' knee problem has proved to be an unexpected boon, cementing her bonds to the sport.
"I think that was really key to her because she had to make a decision early on, as a young athlete: 'Do I get out of it now, or do I love it that much?' " McGarvey said. "It allowed her to take a step back."
De Angelis is still present in competition though she does not row: Two racing shells have been named for her, one at Northeastern and one at the University of Massachusetts, where she once coached a varsity team to an undefeated season. So the more formally named "Deborah" De Angelises still get on the water, even if the woman herself does not.