Plenty of Olympians have already peaked by age 20. Some have retired. Jamie Schroeder? Well, you couldn't have even called him an athlete until then.
He was a gangly teenager, always too busy perfecting a biology experiment or playing the tuba to do much more than flail around on the basketball court or behind a volleyball net. He seemed on track to be great at something, but no one imagined that it would involve picking up an oar.
He did so for fun during his sophomore year at Northwestern University. Somehow, when he pulled into the Chicago River, he found his perfect physical environment. Within a few months, he was training at a national-class level. Within a few years, the 6-foot-8 Schroeder found himself in a four-man boat at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
This summer, he'll journey to Beijing as part of a four-man scull with a chance to medal. After that, he'll marry Kelsey Twist, The Sun's girls High School Athlete of the Year in 2001, and settle in Baltimore. He plans to finish his doctorate in physiology from Oxford (he already has a graduate degree from Stanford) and then begin medical school at Johns Hopkins in fall 2009.
Yes, even among Olympians, Schroeder, 26, is an overachiever.
"I can step back from it enough to realize it's pretty amazing that I've had these opportunities," he says of his whirlwind biography.
You would never know it from meeting him, Twist says.
"I didn't realize how accomplished he was until a ways into our relationship," she says. "When he meets someone, he's not going to say, 'Oh, I'm an Olympian,' or 'Oh, I'm going to Hopkins med.' He's really going to have a genuine interest in what they do."
But Schroeder amazes those around him with his focus on the task at hand. "He just has an uncanny ability to take everything seriously," his fiancee says.
He grew up in Wilmette, Ill., in the Chicago suburbs, the son of a professor at Northwestern's hospital. He always tended to jump headlong into various pursuits.
Schroeder sang in the church choir with his mother, and when the touring American Boychoir came to town for a joint concert, he was intrigued. Though just in middle school, he tried out for the group, unbeknownst to his parents. When he made it, he announced that he wanted to move to Princeton, N.J., where the choir's school is headquartered. They let him go.
After two years of seeing the country and world, Schroeder pushed to attend boarding school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. There, he excelled academically, sang in three choirs and played the tuba in two bands. He also played junior varsity volleyball and basketball - with little distinction. "Basically, the problem was I was terribly uncoordinated," he says.
Schroeder started college back home at Northwestern. One day, the captain of the school's rowing club suggested he try the sport because his long wingspan could be a great advantage.
Rowing can be a physical shock to a novice. Your backside hurts from sitting for hours. Your wrists and shoulders are sore from so much pulling. You must accept that every hour of elite competition requires about 100 hours of training.
But Schroeder was drawn instantly to the duality of the sport, which required him to push his individual physical limits but also demanded perfect synchronicity with others in the boat. He couldn't analyze his way to better times. He had to feel his way to a more powerful stroke. His body taught his mind, not the other way around.
After three months of training, he exploded past a key time threshold on the ergometer, a device that measures the rower's power over given distances. That allowed him to attend a national tryout camp, where he didn't last long but was encouraged by higher-level coaches. Given his new rowing aspirations and his frustration with teaching methods in Northwestern's pre-med program, he transferred to Stanford.
After a year on the varsity there, he made the under-23 national team. With the Olympics on the horizon, the brilliant student dropped school for a year to train full time in Princeton. A back injury almost shattered his Athens dreams, but he made it into the four-man boat.
The Olympic experience wasn't perfect. Schroeder and his teammates felt the coaches shuffled their lineup too much at the last moment. His four-man boat finished well out of medal contention, and he remembers his shock at how fast the other boats went during his first Olympic race.
Still, he had a great time hitting the parties in the Olympic Village. On one stroll, he and two siblings, who speak fluent Chinese, ran into Yao Ming.
"Even though I hadn't rowed my best," he says, "I had come so far."
Schroeder had to make a decision after the Olympics. As much as he loved rowing, he didn't want to train full time between Athens and Beijing. Instead, Stanford beckoned. He met Twist, then a senior lacrosse star, during that post-Olympic year.
"I don't think she was very happy to be in the same dorm as me," he says. "She thought I'd be this cocky guy because of the Olympics."
She confirms that, noting that she'd had unpleasant encounters with other Stanford Olympians. "I kind of made a point not to meet him," she says.
But they bonded over cooking sessions, he impressing her with his breakfast burritos and chocolate chip pancakes, she pleasing his palate with her gingerbread cookies. She loved that he could set his sport aside so easily and show deep interest in other people and subjects. Though he moved to England for postgraduate work, they decided to date long distance.
Oxford carries a storied rowing tradition, and Schroeder competed against Cambridge in the world's oldest intercollegiate sporting rivalry. More important, he learned to keep a training regimen while outside of a formal Olympic program.
After a year, he won a fellowship that allowed him to continue his Oxford research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. He would be able to row with a strong club on the Potomac River and, more important, be close to Twist, who had become a teacher and coach at her alma mater, Roland Park.
At NIH, Schroeder uses high-powered proton microscopes to investigate the internal switches that regulate energy transfer to human cells. He hopes that by understanding their subtleties, he'll one day be better equipped to fix disease-ravaged heart muscles.
"I'm drawn to science because I've always been drawn to progress," he says. "How will things be done in the future and how do we get there? We're poised at a very interesting time for all the advancements that could happen."
Medical school will give him the clinical and technical skills needed to put his research to use.
On the water, Schroeder switched from sweep rowing, performed with one row on one side of the boat, to sculling, which requires each athlete to pull two oars. The new discipline suited his back better, and he soon became one of the best in the country.
He resumed full-time training in January, moving to California and then Princeton to seek perfect on-water harmony with his new boatmates. At the end of May, they traveled to a World Cup event in Switzerland as an untested quartet but amazed everyone by sweeping past all contenders, including a Polish crew that hadn't lost in three years.
"I know the Olympic final is a whole different level of passion," Schroeder says. "But it certainly bodes well for our chances."
There's also a good chance that Beijing will be Schroeder's last world-class event. Medical school is consuming enough time that training opportunities will be scarce. And he'll want time to cook and garden with his new wife at their place in upper Fells Point.
But two Olympics aren't bad for a science geek who had played more tuba than sports just six years ago.
"I don't feel any pressure, like this is my last chance or something," he says. "You have to go into every race as if it's your last one."
Sport -- Rowing
Age -- 26
Hometown -- Wilmette, Ill.
Colleges -- Northwestern, Stanford and Oxford
Connection to Baltimore --Will attend Johns Hopkins medical school in fall 2009. Is engaged to former Sun girls High School Athlete of the Year (2001) Kelsey Twist, a teacher and coach at Roland Park.
Countdown to Beijing
In the weeks leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, The Sun will bring you stories about local athletes you know, such as swimming superstars Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff. We'll also introduce you to some local competitors you might not know of, as with today's feature on rower Jamie Schroeder. As we count down to Beijing, look to he Sun for your local Olympic coverage.