Rower finds a balance

Rower Jason Read is having trouble these days finding time for the small demands of the life of an Olympian.

"Can I call you back?" Read asked when contacted by a reporter. He was busy at the scene of a motorcycle accident on a crowded and noisy New Jersey highway. Although Read is a member of the U.S. men's heavyweight eights team headed to Athens this summer, he is also chief of the Amwell Valley EMS and Rescue Squad in Ringoes, N.J.

Read's participation on the water has proved crucial to his team's success -- in his eight years on the U.S. rowing team, he has helped stroke boats to a world championship silver medal in 2003 and a world cup victory in the men's fours last spring in Lucerne, Switzerland. Yet, it is when Read steps out of the boat that he arguably becomes most important to the people around him.

After his teammates wind down from a rigorous 7 a.m., two-hour training session on Lake Carnegie in Princeton, N.J, Read scrambles to change into his EMT chief's uniform, in the boathouse or sometimes even in the car.

Within minutes, "Chief Read," as his teammates refer to him, is often at the scene of an accident, tending to fire victims or delicately and quickly extracting a patient from a car using the Jaws of Life. His early morning race against athletic opponents nearly instantly transformed into a far more serious race against time.

"I have to be two different people during the day," Read, 26, said. "On the team, I am one of the guys who keeps things light and fun, but then I have to switch to a more serious personality, where I have to ensure the safety of a community."

There was perhaps no time in Read's life that called for his serious side more than on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, along with hundreds of New Jersey-based rescue personnel, Read helped set up a field hospital in Liberty State Park, in Jersey City. The park sits west of lower Manhattan with direct access to ferry lines certain to be used as part of an emergency evacuation route.

No patients came.

As Read and others realized what that meant -- the towers fell before the expected patients had time to escape -- the rescuers made their way to Ground Zero to assist in seaching amidst the rubble.

"The amount of destruction was unfathomable," Read said, still choking up at the mention of it. "We went into the pile searching for survivors, but there weren't any. Just people's bodies, not intact."

Read stayed at the site for five days, numbed by the images flooding his mind and driven by hope of finding someone still alive.

"It was unbelievable to see all the people working," he said. "There were no turf wars, there were no officers barking orders, it was just everyone working toward a common goal."

Drained and exhausted, it took weeks before Read was able to get back on the water. But when he did, he found the peace and serenity of rowing to be a welcome break from the stressful emotions of his job.

In the past, coaches might have questioned Read's ability -- with so much on his plate -- to pull his own weight in a boat. But he is quick to point out how his two very different responsibilities -- his dueling devotions -- actually complement one another.

"Rowing embodies teamwork, focus, discipline and poise," Read said. "To have confidence and be able to work with other people in order to achieve the highest results. Congruently, on a rescue call, I need to be able to harness the energy of a victim or the people on my squad to make the end result a positive one."

Henry Nuzum, a member of the U.S. double men's heavyweight boat, as well as a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy, has seen the benefit of Read's double life first hand.

"Jason's a very poised competitor, unusually so even for this level of competition," Nuzum said, "and he brings that sense of calm to his teammates.

"I went with [Read] on a call recently. It was an equestrian accident, there were horses galloping all around and people in pain. I watched his confidence and execution bring calm to everyone there, the victims, the bystanders and the friends."

The parallels are clear. Not quite as obvious, though, are the differences. And those differences might be exactly what keeps Read afloat.

The tragic deaths and accidents he encounters on the job offer little in the way of explanation, and even less a sense of order or justice. But justice is exactly what he said he gets out on the water.

"What's great about rowing is that despite all the nonsense and the politics that we could be put through ... The clock doesn't lie. It's black and white, you either performed or you didn't."

That said, Read's experiences at Ground Zero have made representing his country even more significant. It is yet another responsibility Read will not take lightly as he and his teammates try to become the first U.S. men's eight team to win a medal since 1988.

"Things like the American flag take on a much greater weight after an experience like 9-11," he said. "In the scheme of things rowing really doesn't matter that much, but to have the opportunity to represent your country as an elite athlete, that's meaningful."