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His hunger drives him

Abdullah hopes rivals can only eat his dust

The 39th annual Head of the Charles regatta, which kicks off today and runs through tomorrow afternoon on and along the Charles River, is a celebration of physical fitness and mental fortitude. Because to put oneself in contention in this prestigious event, an athlete has to be willing to log many hours of practice on the water while maintaining a proper diet in the dining room in order to reach the peak condition necessary to be successful.

But yesterday at the Cambridge Boat Club, there was Aquil Abdullah, one of the favorites in this afternoon's championship singles, wearing a hat of a fast-food burger joint.

What, fast food and competitive rowing together at last?

"We train in San Diego and no one on the East Coast has a Fatburger hat," said Abdullah, 30, who spends much of his time training with the United States national team in Chula Vista, Calif., and has been known to frequent the West Coast chain. "You can go there and get pretty much anything you want on your burger. So I went there and it was pretty good and I had to get one of these hats. I'm one of the smaller rowers, so for me I just try to eat everything, Fatburgers included."

Today, Abdullah will forget about greasy food and turn his attention toward one of the featured events of the weekend.

"I feel as though I'm one of the top guys in the field here, but at the same time it's one of those regattas where you never know," Abdullah said. "You can miss a buoy and get a 10-second penalty and move from third to fifth or even farther just like that."

The championship singles race always attracts a strong field. However, missing from this year's group of 27 rowers is the two-time defending champion, Duncan Free.

Yet there are still some big names competing, including Michael Perry, who finished third last year, and two-time winner Donald Smith.

But a lot of the focus will be on Abdullah, who in 1996 became the first African-American to win a national championship in single sculls. In 2000, he finished second in the single sculls at the Olympic Trials, missing a spot on the team by 0.33 seconds, and last year he added his second national championship.

"All those are great accolades but I feel my primary focus is being an athlete and doing well and winning," he said. "I do take some pride in them but my goal was never to be the first African-American anything. My goal was to enjoy life to its fullest, and that's what I'm doing."

Abdullah, a four-time member of the US national team, is quite comfortable racing on the Charles. He lived in Cambridge and trained on the river for two years in the late 1990s, and this will be his 11th Head of the Charles.

With age and experience, Abdullah hopes, will come his first victory in the championship singles.

"I think for me being a veteran here in rowing I'm a little bit more focused mentally," he said. "When I was younger I would come and go down to Magazine Beach [a popular gathering spot for rowers] and say hi to all my friends. But now it's kind of like I'll just wait till after I'm done racing to see my friends. It's become more businesslike but it's still a lot of fun."

Abdullah believes in order to win here you have to be smart.

"There's really a lot that goes into winning the [Head of the] Charles," he said. "It's about being fit, but it's also about rowing a good race, a smart race."

Course management plays a big part as rowers have to successfully navigate the winding course.

"As far as the course and strategy is involved, each year I just try to become a little bit smarter about racing as far as when to go all out, when to finesse it a little bit more, make that turn, or power down a little bit so when I do have the opportunity to either pass someone or go all out," he said. "I have the energy to do that."

And afterward, don't be surprised to see Abdullah eating whatever he wants at one of the parties along the river.

"I love coming here," he said. "You come in and smell the funnel cakes and see guys selling sausages. It's like one big festival."

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