One Dad Vail rower already triumphant

Posted: May 09, 2008

As she does nearly every day in good weather, Hilary Armstrong pushed off from a dock on the Schuylkill and used her powerful arms, legs and torso to begin rowing her four-person boat.

That in itself is a miracle.

Four years ago, doctors told her she wouldn't be able to row after her car hydroplaned on a slick road and hit a telephone pole, rock and tree, leaving her with three shattered vertebrae, fractured ribs and a collapsed lung.

But today and tomorrow, Armstrong, 21, will set the pace for her St. Joseph's University varsity four in the Dad Vail Regatta after powering back from her near-crippling injuries.

"I was really determined to do this. I believe there's always a way to do something," said the effusive senior, lean and toned from punishing year-round workouts, before a recent practice at St. Joe's boathouse.

Rowing attracts a certain kind of spirit, someone committed more to strength and endurance than flashy moves. That brio helped Armstrong reclaim her dream of competing for St. Joe's, which had recruited her for its team.

Throughout her ordeal, the school never gave up on her - even when rowing seemed out of the question.

When she finally got to school in the spring of freshman year, coach Gerry Quinlan made her coxswain even though the 5-foot-7 athlete was about 7 inches and 25 pounds too big for the job.

And when she told him the next year that she was ready to row, he didn't hesitate to take her back "as long as she was willing to work hard," he said.

"She's never slowed us down."

It took that kind of grit to recover from the crash, which happened near her home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, the summer before her freshman year. She was driving to a 6 a.m. practice at her rowing club when she lost control of her mother's Audi station wagon.

The car was crushed except for a small cubbyhole where Armstrong was found. When police called her parents they told them she was alive "at the moment," recalled her mother, Leslie. "That sets a bit of panic in you."

On the way to the hospital, they passed the crumpled car, still wrapped around the tree.

"Luckily my husband is the cool, calm and collected one and he was driving," she said.

Armstrong underwent three operations, two of them to remove the crushed bone and insert a titanium cage and rods in her back.

Her recovery was never certain.

"The first 36 to 48 hours or so they were really uncertain if I was going to live," she said.

Her doctor, Michael Lefkowitz, said that after surgery he was fairly certain she would walk, but he wasn't sure how much more she could do.

"The operation was performed and planned to help her return to normal activities, which does not normally include competitive rowing," he said.

Armstrong left the hospital after a month in a back brace. Walking, even sitting up in bed, was exhausting. Eventually, she began working out at the gym and pressing her doctor to let her row. He suggested, only half joking, that she take up bridge instead.

She didn't listen.

"I was told no a lot, that I wouldn't be able to do this again, but I had pretty high hopes all the time," she said. She did give up another beloved hobby, horseback riding.

A year after her accident, she was given the green light to row, a little. Stroke by stroke, she worked up to her former pace. Her recovery, she said, "was ridiculously fast" with only minor pain.

Lefkowitz finds it hard to believe. "She just kept going and going. She's done spectacularly," he said.

Her teammates are as supportive as the cage in her back. During a bad practice, one of the girls rallied the sluggish crew by telling them to do it for Hilary.

"She said, 'You think you're in pain, imagine what Hilary's done.' I started crying. I love the girls in my boat," she said, her huge brown eyes filling up with tears.

Her best friend, Julie Solar, with whom she rowed during summers in high school, never doubted Armstrong would be back. "Once she sets her mind to doing something, she does it," Solar said.

The two were training for the Nationals when Armstrong smashed her car. Armstrong had the bow position, which is responsible for steering and strategy - and which is suited to her driven personality.

"She's very independent and strong-willed. You don't mess with Hilary," said Solar, a junior at the University of Rhode Island.

But sometimes you beat her, as Solar did when the two rowed against each other at the Atlantic 10 Championships in Camden last month. "It was so funny sitting there and saying, 'That's my best friend over there,' " Solar recalled.

Hopefully, that loss has Armstrong fired up for the Dad Vail because the Varsity Four is going to be "a tough event," said coach Quinlan.

Last night, Armstrong planned to celebrate another huge milestone: a special graduation ceremony at St. Joe's boathouse for eight seniors who can't attend commencement tomorrow because of the Dad Vail.

After a two-week graduation trip to Europe, Armstrong, a marketing major, will begin a summer internship at an advertising and marketing firm in New York.

And she will put her oars away for awhile, satisfied that she made it to the finish line.

"I'm so excited. I did it," she said. "I got what I wanted: four years of rowing."


 

For more information, visit the Dad Vail Regatta Web site via


Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com.

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