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Death of crew member stuns BC

Student, 20, succumbs to heart failure in Pa.

Boston College was stunned and in mourning yesterday at the death of Scott J. Laio, a bright, energetic student-athlete who collapsed and died shortly after his boat finished in first place Saturday at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia.

Laio, a 20-year-old junior who juggled the rigors of crew with a double major in biology and marketing, died of major heart failure at Hahnemann University Hospital after a teammate performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation and Laio was brought in his bright red rowing uniform onto the docks of the Schuylkill River, a college official said.

Yesterday, Laio's teammates took a long, sorrow-filled bus ride from Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill, as fellow rowers across the Northeast grappled with the tragedy and friends mourned his death at his home in Pittsford, N.Y.

Gene DeFilippo, athletic director at Boston College, said Laio had been cleared by the student's doctor to take part in the physical rigors of rowing at the college. Students who attend BC must submit a form from their doctor stating whether they are physically able to participate in sports, he said.

Students who take part in intercollegiate sports such as football and basketball must pass an additional medical screening by the college's health services office. But men's crew at BC is considered a club sport, meaning no additional testing is required, said Steve Bushee, assistant athletic director for sports medicine.

Laio, who spent summers in a skiff coaching at his former high school club, Pittsford Crew, picked BC in part because of its premier rowing program, said Anne Ferris, a family friend. Her son, Jon, 20, a sophomore at Colby College, rowed with Laio in high school and also coached alongside him.

''I could easily see him going into coaching after college," Jon Ferris said yesterday. ''He was just a natural at it." Like many rowers, the two bonded in the moments of pain and physical exertion that fuel the sport.

''He was just a great competitor -- you could see it in his eyes," Ferris said. ''Every time you got in a boat with him, you wanted to do everything to help him, because he was doing everything to help you."

Some rowers said yesterday that Laio's decision to participate in lightweight rowing, which requires competitors to weigh less than 160 pounds, might have precipitated his cardiac failure. Laio was tall and lean, listed on a BC website as 6 feet 2 inches and 166 pounds.

''As a lightweight coach, it was certainly something that occurred to me," said Ian C. Hutton, a coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Howard G. Knuttgen, a senior lecturer in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, said even drastic weight-loss measures, such as skipping meals and drinks, could not precipitate a heart attack.

''I'm aware of the fact that you cannot damage a healthy heart; therefore, for this young man, and for any other like him, there was something wrong to begin with," Knuttgen said. ''If you don't eat properly, you can fatigue, and you can hit the wall early, but that's not going to precipitate a heart attack."

Medical examiners yesterday performed an autopsy on Laio but did not release the results.

A man who answered the phone at the Laio home said the family was too grief-stricken to speak.

''He was a great person," Laio's physics lab partner, Antonia Melas, told BC's student newspaper, The Heights. ''He always saw the good side of things."

Others in the rowing world were stunned and saddened yesterday. Laio was the first rower in memory to collapse while racing and die shortly thereafter. In 2003, a University of New Hampshire freshman, Nicholas Frid, died of apparent heart failure while running during a training session with the rowing team.

''To have this happen is every coach's nightmare and every parent's nightmare and every teammate's nightmare," said Charley Butt, a rowing coach at Harvard University for two decades.

At Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., rowers returned to campus in mourning after witnessing Laio collapse on the Schuylkill, less than 20 feet away, said coach Stephen Loaiza.

Gathered for a banquet, their bowman, the last rower in the boat, read a tribute to Laio, who was in BC's bow.

''There were people weeping in the room," Loaiza said. The Bucknell team also signed a shirt and gave it as a memorial to BC, he said. ''These kids think they're bulletproof, and they think they're immortal, but they learned a very painful lesson yesterday."

In Cambridge, at the Riverside Boat Club, where rowers maneuvered the long, thin shells into the water for a race yesterday, many were sad. ''It's pretty scary, because you never know if you have a heart condition at our age," said Elizabeth Diamond, 22, a rower from Somerville.

Coaches said yesterday that they are more aware than ever of the stresses of losing weight and they try to discourage rowers who are more than 5 or 6 pounds above the maximum from participating.

''My overall impression is that the rowers do a very good job of being responsible about it," Butt said.

Said Hutton, ''It's much safer than it used to be."

A memorial service for Laio has been planned for Wednesday in Pittsford, DeFilippo said, with a funeral Mass to be said Thursday.

No memorials at BC have been scheduled so far, though the university has been making counselors available to students, DeFilippo said.

Scott J. Laio helped guide his team to a first place.
Scott J. Laio helped guide his team to a first place.
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