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D.C. Is the Place to Be When It Comes to Paddling

June 18, 1989|ANGUS PHILLIPS | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It wasn't easy, but Cathy Hearn was doing her best to explain to a puzzled newcomer how she manages to stay among the top whitewater kayakers in the world, even though she's moved from the suburbs of Washington to rural Connecticut.

"Look," she finally said in gentle exasperation, "D.C. is the center of the paddling universe, okay? But it isn't the paddling universe."

Or maybe you didn't know that here among the monuments in shining marble, the stately boulevards, the oppressive summer heat and the mile-high stacks of bureaucratic paper, a world-class sporting dynasty lurks.

If you didn't, you'll find out over this weekend and next as the cream of international whitewater racing competes in the first world paddling championships ever held in the United States.

Six hundred slalom and wildwater canoeists and kayakers from 25 nations are now convened at the rumbling Savage River, a Potomac tributary in Western Maryland, for racing that begins Saturday. Few among them failed to make a stop in Washington along the way to pay tribute to some of the best in the game.

It's been 10 years now since Hearn, 31, her brother Davey, 30, and suburban Washington neighbors Jon Lugbill and Bob Robison rocked the whitewater world with a dazzling display of boating virtuosity at the 1979 worlds in Jonquiere, Quebec.

When it was over, Americans were uncontested champions of the paddling world. Lugbill, Davey Hearn and Robison swept the top three places in slalom canoe, an event no American ever had won before, and Cathy Hearn took three of the four gold medals in women's kayak, which no American had won before, either.

In the decade since, Americans in general and Washingtonians in particular have set the pace in the fast-changing sport of whitewater slalom, which in 1992 rejoins the Olympics for the first time in 20 years.

Since 1979, for example, Lugbill and Davey Hearn have finished one-two in every slalom canoe championship, Lugbill taking four of the five golds in such far-flung places as Bourg St. Maurice, France; Bala, Wales; and Merano, Italy, to become the top slalom canoeist of all time.

Meantime, lured by U.S. successes, top racers from England, Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand and elsewhere have migrated to train for weeks and months with Washington's elite on a Potomac River practice course just below Little Falls, not 10 miles from the White House.

Now come the worlds as partial reward. "The International Canoe Federation let us know they would look favorably on an American bid after we did so well again in 1983," said U.S. slalom team coach Bill Endicott.

To understand the origins of Washington's whitewater phenomenon, it helps to know a bit about the nation's capital, its remarkable river and the highly motivated people it attracts.

Endicott, for example, moved to town in the mid-1970s, fresh from a graduate degree at Harvard, with an ambition to fix some of the nation's social ills. He worked a while as a congressman's aide, then on the prestigious Democratic Study Group.

But as an ex-whitewater paddler and Harvard oarsman, he couldn't help noticing the beautiful river cascading through his adopted city. Before long, he was out playing on Potomac whitewater.

There he ran into Lugbill, the Hearns and a host of other local youngsters, all fired up about racing after Silver Spring, Md.'s Jamie McEwan won a bronze medal in slalom canoe in the 1972 Olympics, the only previous Olympics ever to feature the arcane sport. When the youngsters asked Endicott to coach them, he agreed.

Within a few years, Endicott had quit his career to devote full time to coaching, living off a modest trust fund and spending mornings and evenings hounding his charges up and down the Potomac with a stopwatch.

"Bill wound up the perfect coach," said Cathy Hearn. "He provided organization, objectivity and helped the overall attitude of the group, but he didn't try to tell us what to do.

"But the most valuable thing," she said, "was that he was a tireless, fanatical worker. Here was this volunteer killing himself for us. What were we going to do in return for him? The feeling was, we'd better deliver."

And they did. In 1977, Robison, then 15, was fourth in slalom canoe at the world championships in Spittall, Austria. The Washington-based, two-man canoe team of Steve and Mike Garvis also took fourth and Cathy Hearn won a bronze medal in the women's kayak team race.

That should have been fair warning to the world, but no one, not even the Americans, was prepared for the 1979 tour de force, which signaled the start of U.S. domination in a sport practically no one in the nation had even competed in before 1957.

By 1981, decked canoes designed by Lugbill, Robison and Davey Hearn were the standard for the world, as they are today, and slalom paddling and boat-handling techniques the trio devised were miles ahead of anyone else's, as they also remain.

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