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There's Always Another Option : No Matter What the Obstacle, Leach Finds a Way to Compete

HOW THEY'RE DOING: One in a series

May 23, 1991|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Bill Leach was in Europe with the United States national water polo team in 1970, trying to score goals while the best players in the world tried to drown him, and he was playing well enough to have earned a spot as a starter.

He wasn't exactly elated, though.

Leach had been sizing up the competition and had begun to wonder if his dream of competing in the Olympics was going to remain just that: a dream. He had always been able to overcome the barriers to athletic success by simply working harder than anyone else. But there was no way he could grow 6 inches and put on 50 pounds before the 1972 Games.

"I was very happy to make the team that went to Europe to play the best teams, including Yugoslavia, which had won the gold medal in 1968, and the Hungarians, who were favored to win it in '72," Leach said. "And I had made the move up from sitting on the bench to starting.

"But the Yugoslavians and Hungarians were all like basketball players. They were all like 6-8, some even 6-10, and between 220 and 240 pounds. Here I was at 5-10 and maybe 165 pounds."

Leach figured that if Ted Newland--his coach at Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar high schools and later at UC Irvine--was named Olympic coach, he would probably make the team despite his, well, shortcomings.

But he couldn't be so sure in the event someone else was selected to coach.

"Someone else probably would have gone with another player of similar ability who was bigger," Leach said. "The selections are so subjective. If you fit into the kind of offense or defense the Olympic coach liked, then naturally you were favored."

Leach didn't like the idea of letting his chances of achieving his lifelong goal rest on the whim of a coach. So, never one to let common sense stand in the way of his athletic quests, he decided the best way to get to the Olympics was to quit sloshing through the water and start skimming over it.

He took up kayaking.

Leach didn't know much about the sport, except that the paddle--and his future in the Olympics--would be in his own hands.

"I had a friend, Tony Ralphs, who I grew up with in Corona del Mar, and he had made the Olympic kayaking team in 1964," Leach said. "I tried it with Tony, and he was very encouraging. It was kind of like, 'I did it, so you can do it.'

"I took it up specifically to make an Olympic team because I've always wanted to make an Olympic team. I guess it was a very selfish decision on my part. Kayaking wasn't a major sport, and while it was very competitive at the top, you could break into that top echelon fairly quickly."

A year later, Leach won a national championship in kayaking. It was a feat he repeated five times in the next five years. And in 1976, he qualified for the Olympic kayaking team in doubles and realized a dream.

He walked with the other U.S. Olympians in opening-day ceremonies in Montreal.

His face in that crowd of the world's best athletes would have made a nice final scene for the "Bill Leach Story." Leach and his partner, Mike Johnson of Huntington Beach, finished 18th in a field of 30 teams, but Leach had made it to the cafeteria at the Athletes Village, and that's what really mattered.

But with Leach, a 45-year-old history teacher at Corona del Mar High School, endings always seem to turn into beginnings. It was that way with his water polo career and it was that way with his stint as a kayaker.

After the glow of 1976, he continued to train with his wife, Julie, who had finished seventh in the women's singles kayaking final in Montreal. Together, they paddled through the channels of Newport Harbor with visions of a trip to Moscow as motivation.

But then came the decision to boycott the 1980 Games and Leach was weakened by a staph infection during the U.S. Olympic Trials.

"Making the team in '76 was such an incredible experience for me, and '80 would have been frosting on the cake," Leach said. "It was harder for Julie. I was 34, but she was 23 and in a position to win a medal. That made it even more of a blow.

"Then I got the staph infection on my hand, and I was so sick for the Olympic Trials I didn't even feel like I was there. It was the low point for me in sports."

Time to retire?

Not for Leach. Just time to find a new sport. He's not the type to buy a couple of bags of chips and a six-pack, settle into a sofa and watch other people compete. His idea of an uplifting experience is a swim or a bike ride or a run or, as it turned out, all three.

"To take my attention away from the disappointment of the boycott and the pain of the Olympic Trials, I turned to the triathlon," Leach said.

More than 150 triathlons later, Leach is a five-time national masters (40 and over) champion and two-time masters world champion. In 1990, he competed in 16 races and won the masters division 11 times. He finished second in the five other races and once he was slowed by a flat tire.

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