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Americans finally getting serious about canoe and kayak racing

Sensing a reporter's amazement, Chic Dambach supplied a stack of photos to confirm what he'd seen in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, at this month's World University Games - nearly 20,000 spectators seated in a modern concrete stadium to watch canoe and kayak races. Dambach had just completed a day of running the canoe and kayak competition here at the United States Olympic Festival. Things had gone smoothly, but in a far more modest context than the one he found overseas.

At most, a couple of hundred picnicking spectators, including family and friends, watched from the shores of Lake Wheeler. An announcer would occasionally encourage vocal support for competitors nearing the finish.

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This quiet scene was just what you'd expect in a country where canoe and kayak racing has been on the proverbial slow boat to China. Yet if progress was once slim or nonexistent, things have begun to change, not so much in numbers of participants as in results.

The Americans are finally beginning to assert themselves after a long dry spell. With a bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, kayaker Greg Barton became the first US medalist in the sport in 20 years.

The breakthrough was achieved with some strong East-bloc nations boycotting, but he laid any doubts to rest the next year by taking a gold at the world championships. Last year, in a show of team depth, the American men placed a boat in every final at the worlds, and this season they have recorded first- and second-place finishes in most of the major European regattas.

The turnaround has grown out of a decision made several years ago by the National Paddling Committee (NPC), the sport's US governing body.

Tired of muddling along, the committee talked Dambach into taking over leadership of the organization. He's used to setting wheels in motion as the executive director of the Cultural Council in Columbia, S.C., where among other responsibilities he solicits support for symphony concerts and museum exhibits.

Heading up the NPC is like having a second non-paying job for this former college football player, who had a short-lived career at Oklahoma State during the mid-1960s. Like other sports enthusiasts, he discovered the joys of canoeing as an adult, and now spends as much as 40 to 50 hours a week repaying the sport in an administrative capacity.

The overriding theme during his administration has been a commitment to quality. The emphasis is on developing Olympic medal winners, which in turn could broaden the current narrow participation base. The numbers are now insignificant, with only 400 athletes registered to enter national and international events, compared with 400,000 in a country like Hungary.

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To Americans, of course, paddling is viewed as laid-back, relaxing recreation. This perception is actively promoted in many quarters, and its widespread acceptance is one reason the NPC has treaded water for so many years.

``A lot of people didn't want to be organized and precise,'' notes Dambach. Yet to make strides, the paddling community had to quit operating so amateurishly.

Starting races 30 to 45 minutes late and marking off courses with milk cartons just isn't acceptable anymore, says Dambach, who vows that ``our train is going to run on time.''

This year, for the first time, every national trials race had nine buoyed lanes on a surveyed course, chase boats, start platforms, and trained officials.

The athletes appreciate the effort, as well as the new funds being spent to develop the sport. Thanks partly to grants and the divvying up of 1984 Olympic profits, the NPC has been able to expand its budget fivefold in the last three years, to half a million dollars.

Some of this money is being used to mount a long-overdue publicity campaign, to open and staff an office in Indianapolis, and to hire the kind of coaches needed to develop world-class paddlers.

Paul Podgorski, who defected from Poland in 1980, became the first paid US national coach in 1984, and since then two Hungarian assistants have been added.

Such expertise is necessary to teach the refinements that spell success. ``I've probably put a paddle in the water over a million times and I still can't do it right,'' Dambach says in commenting on the sport's subtleties. Just staying upright in racing canoes and kayaks, which are 17 feet long and only about 11 inches wide at the water line, can be a neat trick.

``I defy anybody who has not paddled before to take 10 strokes without tipping over,'' Dambach says. ``I've made that bet a hundred times and never lost.''

It's this kind of challenge that makes paddling converts out of good athletes from other sports. Then, too, canoeing and kayaking beckons as a land of Olympic opportunity for some Americans, who see a chance to parlay their dedication, strength, and natural athleticism into possible passage to the games.

Dambach sees this as a door-opening tool in recruiting efforts, and one that might help entice colleges to start up canoe and kayak programs.

All in all, flat-water paddling, which is a cousin to rowing and uses the same courses, could be on the threshold of an exciting future in the United States.

A new spirit and confidence exist that have Dambach contemplating how to capitalize on a fortunate development at the Pan American Games, which begin in Indianapolis Aug. 8. By coincidence, the first medal in any sport will be awarded in the men's 500-meter kayak, where Americans are favored for the gold.

President Reagan is expected at the opening ceremonies, and the paddling people hope he will hand out the first medals. ``A couple of years ago we wouldn't have even thought about the mayor of Indianapolis doing that [for a kayaking medal],'' says Dambach, seeing an opportunity to make publicity hay while the sun shines.

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