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Olympics Oar Bust : Fun-Loving Ventura Canoeists Plan to Paddle All the Way to Atlanta

July 28, 1994|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave Spaulding and Joseph Harper have paddled a long way since racing canoes made of milk cartons as teen-age pals growing up in Ventura.

The two are perhaps the nation's foremost flat- water sprint paddlers, competing in races worldwide. Now their canoes are lightweight aerodynamic marvels made of fiberglass.

How far have the tiny vessels taken them? Native Americans zipping around the rivers of the old frontier hardly could have logged more miles than this pair.

They represent the United States in races all over Europe--the hotbed of canoeing--and North America. In the next month alone they will have competed in the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, a World Cup canoeing event in Milan, Italy, and the World Championships in Mexico City.

College graduates Spaulding, 26, and Harper, 28, are enjoying more of an extended adolescence than Wayne and Garth.

Paddle on, dudes.

"We're living on the road with the (U.S. National) team and have nothing to worry about," Harper said. "I don't work. We just train full-time. It's great. You're only young once."

Top paddlers compete well into their 30s, so neither Spaulding nor Harper is expected to hang up his oar soon. Unless they go the way of Fred Spaulding, Dave's older brother who represented the United States in two canoe sprint races during the 1992 Olympics.

"My brother, he's only 29, but well, he got married," Dave said, explaining why Fred no longer paddles competitively.

Spaulding and Harper are staunchly single--except when they hop into the same canoe for doubles competition. They believe the tandem approach gives them the best chance to make the 1996 Olympic team.

The Olympics allow only one canoe per country in each event. Spaulding made the 1992 Olympic team as part of a doubles tandem with his brother, but he did not compete because Fred decided to forgo doubles and enter the 500- and 1,000-meter singles races.

Dave felt like he'd been left up the creek without a paddle.

"What could be better than being at the Olympics, but what could be worse than being at the Olympics and not competing?" he asked.

He and Harper plan to avoid a repeat in 1996. "Dave and I have taken up doubles along with singles in order to make the Olympics together," Harper said.

They make an ideal team. Harper, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, kneels in back, steering the vessel and providing long, powerful strokes. Spaulding, 5-foot-6, 165 pounds, kneels in front, setting a furious pace with aggressive paddling.

They have shared a canoe since meeting for the first time at the Ventura Olympic Canoe Club as junior high students. Under the guidance of Bill Bragg, the club's owner and a lifelong paddler, Spaulding and Harper were infected with a can-do canoe spirit.

"We trained every morning at 5:30 before school at the Ventura Marina," said Bragg, 57, who lives in Newbury Park. "In the winter, it was very cold and really tough. That weeds out the weak ones real quickly.

"Both of them I could tell had the mental part, they were determined, tough athletes."

They were also carefree. Harper's clowning nearly cost him his life one day during a canoe race in pouring rain in Westlake.

"We were hitting boats and each other with paddles trying to get to the finish line first," Harper recalled. "I had a big raincoat on. After the race I fell in the water. Dave fell in too and everybody was laughing.

"I was screaming, though, because the raincoat was so heavy. I was seriously drowning."

Harper was pulled out of the water, and he lived to race in milk cartons for cash.

"We'd make a bunch of money in those races," Harper said. "We'd connect the cartons into something like a long surfboard, then sit on it and paddle like a kayak in 100-yard races.

"The Milk Advisory Board put up the money. It was a water park atmosphere, lots of people watching."

The pair first realized paddling could be worth more than mere milk money when Bragg got them jobs at the canoeing venue at Lake Casitas during the 1984 Olympics. Spaulding became fast friends with Romanian paddler Costica Olaru.

"Olaru was built just about like Dave, short and wide," Bragg said. "And he had a funny disposition, carefree just like Dave. Next thing you know, Dave's hauling him off to go surfing and to Sizzler for all you can eat.

"I'm sure Dave was thinking, 'He's just like me, and he's one of hottest guys in the world.' "

Spaulding quickly caught fire. He and his brother won a doubles race at the U.S. National team trials in 1985--the summer after Dave graduated from Buena High--and they toured Europe.

"I was really young," Spaulding said. "It was an unusually fortunate experience."

Since then he has collected a hull full of gold and silver medals from competitions ranging from the Pan American Games to the U.S. National Championships to the U.S. Olympic Festival.

Harper has competed in nine of the 12 Olympic Festivals, qualifying for the first time in 1982 while a student at St. Bonaventure High.

He has five medals from Olympic Festivals, and he and Spaulding won silver medals in both doubles events this summer. In the weeks before the Olympic Festival, Harper and Spaulding finished first in trials for the World Championships and Goodwill Games.

The Goodwill Games this weekend will provide a tuneup for the World Championships. Spaulding and Harper have spent the past several weeks at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, becoming acclimated to altitude similar to that of Mexico City.

Bragg and his proteges will be reunited at the World Championships. He will serve as boat handler for the U.S. team, preparing the canoes and equipment.

"I'm really excited that he's the boat man," Harper said. "It will be great to see him. I hope he can do the same job at the Olympics in a couple of years."

Harper and Spaulding, of course, expect to be there as well.

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