Athletes Past and Present: Aquil Abdullah

For someone who found the sport by chance, Aquil Abdullah has had an exceptional career in rowing. The first African-American male to represent the United States in rowing at the Olympic Games in 2004, Abdullah epitomizes the powerful positive impact the sport can have on a person in a matter of years.

We caught up with Abdullah to discuss his experiences with rowing and what the sport means to him.

How did you get your start in rowing?

I started rowing on a whim. The truth is that I was planning on playing football in college but needed a spring sport to stay in shape. In my senior year at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., a few of my friends convinced me to row instead of run track. At the time, the only thing that I knew about rowing was what I had seen in the movie Oxford Blues. Although, I knew that rowing was a tough sport, I was very skeptical about becoming one of those “pukey” kids on the rowing machine. Fast forward a few months and Paul Wilkins, the rowing coach at GWU, approached me about a rowing scholarship. My rowing endeavors were sealed when my mom made me choose a university before she would let me go to the beach.

What impact has rowing had on you personally?

The sport of rowing itself taught me how to put an oar in the water and take it out. It is the people that I met on my journey in the sport that have had the most impact on my life. My coaches taught me that I was entitled to nothing and that hard work and focus prepared you for the opportunity to be successful, but did not guarantee success. My teammates showed me what it meant to be committed to something greater than yourself and how to persevere in the face of adversity. Finally, my fellow competitors taught me how to push my limits and that there is always another race, until there isn’t.

What was it like to represent the United States at the Olympics?

Flashback! A scrawny 11-year old, Aquil stands in his tightey whities, hands above his head, while the Olympic anthem blasts in the background. Representing the United States with my doubles partner, Henry Nuzum, gave me a profound sense of fulfillment and joy. It is a rare thing to be able to measure yourself against the best, and I am fortunate for having had that opportunity, and thankful for all the people who helped me get there. Other than meeting my wife and having children, it is truly one of the most amazing journeys of my life…so far…to this day.

How are you involved in rowing now, and what impact do you hope to make?

Today, my involvement in rowing is all about staying in enough shape to make it down the river at the Head Of The Charles without catching a crab or passing out. I donate money where I can, and usually participate in Olympic Day events, but I am not nearly as involved as I should be. In the future, I hope to be able to give back more because the sport has truly given me so much.

Header photo by Ed Hewitt, Row2k Media. Article written by Elise Gorberg,

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