Rower Greg Ansolabehere on way to realizing Olympic ambitions

SARASOTA -- From fat kid in the band to aspiring Olympic rower.

That's the short version of Greg Ansolabehere's life, which brought him to Nathan Benderson Park this week.

Ansolabehere is in the race of his life. The 29-year-old was on the water this week fighting for an opportunity to represent the United States at the 2016 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta next month in Lucerne, Switzerland.

After winning his time trial and heat and finishing second in the semifinals, Ansolabehere has qualified for Sunday's final in the men's single sculls, and the winner earns a trip to Switzerland and an opportunity represent the USA at the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro this summer.

"This is what we train for. This is what the last 3½ years have been about. It's all come down to this. I want to see how far I can push my own body, "Ansolabehere says.

Ansolabehere's journey began in the most unlikely place. He was a junior playing trombone in the band at Centennial High School Bakersfield, Calif., when he decided he needed a makeover

At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, Ansolabehere seemed more suited to play offensive line on the football team or maybe even try basketball.

But that didn't excite him. Instead, he chose Weight Watchers, which his mother and sister had used successfully to shed extra pounds.

"I saw myself as a fat kid. I needed to change, and that seemed the best way," Ansolabehere says. "If you would've told me eight years ago that I would be doing something like this and actively moving, I would've told you that you are crazy. This is sort of like the weight loss thing, and now it has translated into this great sport."

Ansolabehere lost more than 110 pounds and remade himself. But he still saw himself as kid who needed direction and the fear of putting that weight back on was lurking in the back of his mind.

"I had to do something to keep the weight off," Ansolabehere says. "I saw a sign that was recruiting men for a club crew team. I went over there and was told I had the build for rowing. I tried it and they put me through a wringer to separate people, but I made it. I liked the team aspect and kept going with it."

Ansolabehere has kept his weight around 210 since his Weight Watchers experience. He also learned what made him successful losing weight would also help him as a rower.

"Weight Watchers is pretty much about goal setting and then monitoring yourself," Ansolabehere says. "You have a number and weigh yourself every week to see how close you are to your goal weight. You are able to see something tangible and that is what kept me motivated.

"You have the same thing in rowing. You have a goal and every time you are out on the water you can tell how much you improved. You can feel your boat moving faster. I could see that I lost 15 pounds just like I can see that I finished fourth."

A turning point for Ansolabehere came when he got into single sculling while training at the University of California, Davis.

"The coach there told me I should do it because it would make me more marketable and versatile, and in sculling you need it in your bag of tricks," he says.

"In 2013, I started doing only sculling because that seemed like the best fit for me," Ansolabehere says. "The eights are fun, but the great thing about single sculling is everything is on you. The bad things are your fault, and the good things are because of you. When you are by yourself, you can feel every little twitch."

Reilly Dampeer, his coach with the Potomac Boat Club since 2013, says Ansolabehere has the right body to be good a rower and the disposition to go along with it.

"Physiologically, he is built for the sport. His height and his wingspan and the way he processes oxygen is just natural for it. He has those big lungs," Dampeer says. "He started a little bit later than most but is definitely not a novice. He improves every time he goes out on the water, which is fantastic. Each outing he gets better."

Alan Dell, Herald sports columnist/writer, can be reached at 941-745-7056. Follow him on Twitter@ADellSports.

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