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.