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Wet and Wild : Slalom Races Added to Canoe and Kayak Competition

BARCELONA 1992 OLYMPICS: 18 Days to the Games

July 13, 1992|TINA FISHER FORDE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is testimony to the obscurity of canoe and kayak racing that an early version of the media guide from the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee displayed a pictogram for kayaking in the rowing section, a rowing pictogram in the canoe-kayak section and a photo of a kayak race in the rowing section. The guide also referred to the whitewater competition as wildwater.

Forget wildwater. There is no wildwater race at the Olympics. The 1992 Olympic Games will feature two canoe and kayak competitions: flat-water and whitewater--separate events at different venues.

The U.S. team has adopted simpler, more descriptive names for these events: sprint (flatwater) and slalom (whitewater). During the Olympics, any of the four terms may be used.

There are sprint and slalom events for both canoes and kayaks, and the easiest way to tell a canoeist from a kayaker is by the paddle. A canoe paddle has a blade on one end, a kayak paddle on both ends. And if it is a woman racing, it is not a canoe. Women race kayaks only.

Sprinters, like their counterparts on land, race in lanes on a flat course, for either 1,000 or 500 meters.

The sprints produced some exciting moments at the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul, when mechanical engineer Greg Barton of Homer, Mich., won the 1,000-meter kayak gold medal and, 90 minutes later, teamed with Norman Bellingham of Bethesda, Md., and won the pairs.

Barton, 32, and Bellingham, 27, form a triple threat for the 1992 Olympics, Barton at 1,000 meters, Bellingham at 500 meters and together at 1,000 meters in the doubles.

The big news about slalom racing is that it is included at the Barcelona Games at all. It required the construction of a 600-meter sloping waterway filled with a rushing current, boulders, falls and other water obstacles and cost about $2 million. Because of cost problems and politics, slalom was not contested at Montreal, Moscow, Los Angeles or Seoul.

Jaded viewing audiences accustomed to nonstop motion and special effects might enjoy slalom. With its action, spills, close calls and suspense, and a real element of danger, it is made to order for television.

Canoe and kayak slalom racing is equivalent to snow-ski slalom. The paddlers must negotiate churning water, eddies, holes and rock obstacles as they slip and power through 25 pole gates suspended seven feet above the water.

Paddling closed-decked, round-bottomed boats designed to turn on a dime, competitors race down the course, twisting, pivoting and dodging to avoid the slightest contact with the swaying poles, while maintaining line, speed and economy of stroke.

U.S. competitor Kirsten Brown-Fleshman lost her Olympic chance during the team trials when part of her kayak touched a gate. A touch costs five seconds in penalty points. Missing a gate altogether costs 50 points, a sure loss for the run.

Green-striped gates must be approached going downstream, red-striped gates upstream. In a series of downstream gates, the one placed off the straight line is an offset gate.

Although competitors can practice on the course before a race, the exact configuration of the gates is secret until the competition begins. After the gates are set, the racers run the official course three times--once for practice and twice for official scores and times. Only the best of the two official runs is counted, so a paddler can blow one run and still win.

"Some people get excited by a great first run," U.S. slalom coach Bill Endicott said. "But you have to wait until the race is over. Often a great first run gets eclipsed by an even better second run."

THE COACH

Endicott, of Bethesda, Md., quit his Washington, D.C., job in 1983 to become full-time coach. It represented a major philosophical statement.

"He was instrumental in helping the athletes take the sport as seriously as they wanted to," said 12-time world champion single canoeist Jon Lugbill, also of Bethesda. "He was willing to drop everything in his life for paddling. He showed the athletes we could do the same. He showed it is possible to have a lifestyle centered and focused on canoe slalom."

Lugbill said Endicott thrives on a competitive atmosphere.

"When there is a problem, Bill doesn't look for the easiest way out," he said. "The best way, that is the path he takes. He is willing to focus in and do it, to knock down barriers. That is what we have got to do--just do it. Knock down barriers."

Endicott also has an analytical mind.

Said his wife, Abbie: "He encourages the athletes to keep logs and make precise plans for the day's work, and to make specific long- and short-term goals. His coaching style is to encourage them to be their own best coach, not to tell them what to do. He makes them think."

There is little wasted effort in Endicott's world.

"Workouts are as short and specific and efficient as possible to get the most out of it," Abbie said. "If you make it a long session, you just practice going slow. You have to practice at peak performance."

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