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Olympian's Father Dies at Opening Ceremonies : Tragedy: Family of swimmer who trained at Mission Viejo had just watched him on parade in stadium.

July 27, 1992|TIM LAYDEN | NEWSDAY

BARCELONA — It was slightly past 9 p.m. here Saturday when 26-year-old Ron Karnaugh marched into the Olympic Stadium, one of the few members of the U.S. swimming team to participate in the opening ceremony because many would be competing or practicing early the next morning.

And much to Karnaugh's wonder, as he circled the stadium next to teammate Joel Thomas, he spotted his parents sitting among the 65,000 spectators in the stands. And they spotted him.

"We actually saw them during the parade," Thomas said. "His dad looked good, he was excited. There were so many people in that stadium, it's pretty neat to see your parents."

Less than an hour after Ron Karnaugh passed in front of the stands, his 60-year-old father, Peter Karnaugh, collapsed, apparently of a heart attack, and died in an emergency clinic at the stadium. His body was taken to a Barcelona hospital where, under Spanish law, an autopsy will be performed by the coroner, a process that will probably prevent officials from releasing the body until about 72 hours after the time of death.

Karnaugh's hometown of Maplewood, N.J., had raised about $27,000 to send his parents, Peter and Jean, and his sister, Debbie, to Barcelona.

"They came here to see their son swim well," said Terry Stoddard, Karnaugh's coach with the Mission Viejo Nadadores. Karnaugh has trained in Mission Viejo since 1989.

Karnaugh's friends understood what it meant, especially, for the father and the son to be together. Thomas, who attended UC Berkeley with Karnaugh, remembered pre-race meals of liver and onions, prepared by Karnaugh's father, a trucking company executive.

"Just because that's what his dad liked," Thomas said. "His dad was at all the meets, he was a real supporter of all the guys on the Cal team."

After the opening ceremony, Ron Karnaugh left the stadium area with the U.S. delegation and returned to the Olympic village, unaware that his father had died. U.S. Olympic Committee officials contacted Stoddard and asked him to come to the village to awaken him. Karnaugh's mother and sister were taken to a nearby area, also in the village.

"It was 4:10 (a.m.) when I got there," Stoddard said.

He awakened Karnaugh, but only to bring him to his mother. He did not tell him what had happened. They walked for a short time, Stoddard said. "It wasn't an experience I would ever want to duplicate," he said.

The Karnaugh family was then taken to a hotel in Barcelona. They have told the USOC office and the U.S. Consulate that they don't wish to make any statements.

Ron Karnaugh, however, has told friends and coaches that he will swim, as scheduled, Friday in the 200-meter individual medley here. Karnaugh is seeded second in the event, which he won at the U.S. Olympic trials in March.

"He has confirmed that he will swim and swim well," Stoddard said.

Such an attitude is consistent with Karnaugh's reputation as one of the most unrelenting competitors on the U.S. team.

The U.S. swimming yearbook notes that the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Karnaugh, who has been training with the Nadadores since graduating from Cal, was about to set a team bench-press record when he ripped one of the handles off of the machine.

"There are three ways he can let this affect him," Thomas said. "He can let it affect him in a negative way, he can just go out and do what he was going to do, or he can turn it to his advantage and do something special. He's got a tough race. He's a tough guy. I think he'll be OK."

Stoddard said Karnaugh has a particularly close and emotional relationship with his family.

"It was awesome," Stoddard said. "Just real close. He looked up to his dad a lot. It's a very tight family."

Before he left for Barcelona, Karnaugh credited his father with helping him maintain his competitive edge at age 26. After the Games, Karnaugh was planning to attend medical school at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Some members of the U.S. team were told of Peter Karnaugh's death early Sunday morning, others not until nearly noon, at the conclusion of the first day's preliminaries. "It's just a shock," said 400 free relay alternate Shaun Jordan, of Dallas.

U.S. Swimming public relations director Jeff Dimond said: "You're on a such a high and then a tragedy like this hits."

Jean and Debbie Karnaugh are handling virtually all of the complications that arise when an American citizen dies abroad, according to Guy Burton, public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona. "There are many, many things that make this a more complex matter than when a death occurs in the United States.

"But," Burton said, "They seem most concerned with keeping the player in the game. It's something you can understand if you have kids in sports."

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