BRONX BOY MAKES GOOD

Steve Kelly has gone through fire (with Ladder Company 36) and ice and sunny lagoons, striving to make the Olympics, though his chances in Montreal remain nil
July 04, 1976

The vast majority of people in the world were not aware of it, but Stephen P. Kelly, the kayaker from the New York City borough of the Bronx, was a teammate of Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympic Games. Mark Spitz was not aware of this either. Kelly recalls his relationship with Spitz in Munich: "I saw him around the Village. I never met him or shook hands with him or anything. That's not unusual. Maybe only one out of every 50 or 60 people in an Olympics wins a gold medal. They're set apart from the rest of us. They're almost like another race. Take a look at the official Olympic yearbook. It lists every single member of every single team. It has a picture of everyone. And you can see there how many failed to meet the qualifying height or lost out in the first heat. People never heard of them. I feel bad about that. But 90% or 95% of everyone in the Olympics is like that."

In Munich, Steve Kelly finished deep among the 95% no one ever heard of. Nevertheless, he was a bona fide world-class Olympic competitor then and he will be again in Montreal this month. This is an honorable achievement, a pinnacle reached by an infinitesimal portion of the world's billions.

Since the Games were reborn in a splurge of idealism and hope 80 years ago, they have been racked and nearly ruined by some of the 20th century's nastier "isms"—cynicism, chauvinism, professionalism, totalitarianism. But if the Olympics as an institution falters, the individual Olympian seems somehow to have transcended the trouble. Whether one is a pampered hero or an anonymous out-of-work New York City fireman like Steve Kelly, it is no cheap or simple thing to become an Olympian—even an Olympian who has no chance to win a gold medal. Perhaps especially an Olympian who has no chance. It demands commitment, it demands sacrifice.

It was the first week in December. There were 20 shopping days until Christmas 1975, 225 days until the Olympics 1976. Steve Kelly sat at the counter in a Manhattan coffee shop at the intersection of Broadway and Dyckman Street. He was, at that moment, the U.S. singles kayak champion. Few people were aware of this; certainly no one in the coffee shop recognized him. He was tall, rangy, a bit shabby in old jeans, old Adidas shoes, a surplus-store parka and a slightly soiled white hat which, he explained, was the official rain hat of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He had a thick beard the color of old copper. His pale skin seemed to have lost its little boy's freckles only recently, the light blue eyes were mischievous, the smile was quick—altogether he gave the impression of an impish altar boy wearing false whiskers.

Steve Kelly was a serious man, however, living a serious life. He was 24 with a son who was two. He had a wife who was pregnant. And he had no permanent employment, only a temporary job driving a delivery truck for a company that sold soft-drink syrup to soda fountains. He was paid $5 an hour. Five months before, Kelly had been laid off by the Fire Department, a victim of the financial crisis that was gripping New York. His job at Ladder Company 36 had paid $11,000 a year. Though he had a degree in criminal justice from John Jay College (class of '72), he had become a fireman largely because he passed a civil service exam that made him eligible to be a fireman; it was not the triumphant fruition of a small boy's dreams.

"My mom was always reading civil service ads in the paper," Kelly said. "She got me to go take the Fire Department exam. I passed, so I took the job. It made her happy. She has that big thing Irish mothers have about getting their sons into something secure—like working for the city."

But not much was secure anymore. "When I was laid off," Steve Kelly said, "I panicked. I'd worry, worry, worry. I'd ask myself, 'What am I gonna do? How can I keep training? What am I gonna do?!' It's been a few months now. I'm used to it. I say to hell with worrying. I'm training for the Olympics. We'll get by. Maybe it's all for the best. There's no way you can hold a full-time job and train for the Olympics. Training is full time now. You have to. The Europeans do it. We have to."

He rose from the stool and left the coffee shop. The December sky was already black although it was only five o'clock in the afternoon. It was damp, blustery, very cold. The intersection of Broadway and Dyckman was brilliantly lit, fiercely noisy. Traffic poured along Broadway, a howling stream of headlights. The papers were full of news about bankruptcy, about the inevitable onrushing deterioration of life in New York City. Kelly climbed into his car and drove west down Dyckman toward the Hudson River, away from the bad news.

A couple of blocks along, beneath a huge concrete arch that held up the Henry Hudson Parkway 80 feet above, he turned left onto a dark rutted road. His headlights shone on puddles of ice in the ruts. Weeds grew between the tire tracks. He drove slowly along the black wilds of the river shore. The Hudson was about a mile wide here. Upriver the tiny lights of a tugboat glided along its surface. Downriver loomed the George Washington Bridge. Its looping necklaces of lights reached across to New Jersey so gracefully that it was hard to believe the bridge had been conceived and built by men.

A few hundred yards down the road, Kelly parked at a small, gray two-story building. This was the Inwood Canoe Club. He unlocked a heavy wooden door and out of the blackness came a small brown dog with an oddly bent ear. Kelly said his name was Hudson and explained that the dog had been tossed into the river by someone on a Circle Line excursion boat a few years before. Club members had paddled out and rescued the animal and he had lived there ever since. "He's supposed to be our watchdog," said Kelly, "but if someone gives him food, he doesn't mind if they break in. Every month or so I come down here and find the door swinging. There's nothing much to steal. We wouldn't think of keeping trophies here."

The Inwood Canoe Club was founded in 1902, offering water sport to citizens imprisoned in the turn-of-the-century congestion of New York. In those days there were other paddling clubs on this part of the river, but only Inwood Canoe Club survives. It has fallen on hard times. There are no more than two dozen active members, many of them high school kids. The original clubhouse burned in 1956, but the new structure has already attained a certain tumbledown look. The interior is filled with dozens of faded snapshots of Inwood paddlers dating back through the century.

The clubhouse was as wintry inside as outside. Kelly opened a door to the boat-house, built on pilings over the river. He turned on a light. The kayaks and canoes were stored on racks. Most of the kayaks were made of mahogany, lovely polished things that shone with old-fashioned craftsmanship. Kelly ran his hand over one of them and smiled. Then he opened the double doors of the boathouse and stepped out. The river sound was loud, an insistent rushing gurgle. The stars were bright. It was only 5:30 but there was a sense of midnight here, of being suspended beyond reality, beyond bankruptcies and the problems of unemployment.

Kelly changed into a sweat suit and climbed narrow stairs to the second floor. Here was a small gym, minimally equipped. He began a series of "sets," repetitive training routines designed to bring him to peak condition for the Olympics. It was a bizarre and distinctly un-Olympic scene—the wind banging at windows, the little room, the boyish Kelly panting and grimacing, the river smell and chill permeating everything.

Kelly chinned himself 30 times on a crowbar lying across two ceiling beams. He fired an ancient medicine ball up against the beams and caught it when it fell—possibly 30 times. He did 50 pushups, 75 sit-ups, skipped rope for five minutes, bench-pressed 210 pounds again and again and again until his arms grew feeble. Then he did another set—chin-ups, medicine ball, rope-jumping, etc.

Two high school boys and the wife of a member joined him, and the four labored for more than an hour. Then, breathing hard, Kelly led his companions downstairs and outside, where they loped off down the weedy driveway until, half a mile away, they came to the dark paths and lanes of Inwood Hill Park. They jogged several miles, passing occasional street lamps, passing black trees whose bare branches tossed and rubbed together in the wind. Occasionally, they stopped running and chinned themselves on limbs. They returned to the clubhouse, but Kelly ran past it and stopped at the base of a steel girder that rose out of sight in the darkness. He grabbed a rope tied somewhere up in the ironwork and he climbed it—25 feet up—hand over hand, half a dozen times while the Hudson wind blew against his back.

It was after 7:30. Soaked with sweat, Kelly went into the locker room to change. A stocky pallid man named Eric Feicht had arrived at the clubhouse. He was a lifetime club officer, a coach of the U.S. Olympic kayak team in 1964. Feicht was asked if he thought Steve Kelly had a chance to do well in the 1976 Olympics. Slowly, considering his words, he said, "No, not very well. We are behind the rest of them. But just having an Olympian at the club makes a nice image for the younger boys. Steve is a hard worker. He is very good at the club. He remembers to lock up when he leaves and he keeps the heat turned down so we don't use too much fuel."

Everyone who grows up in New York City comes from a place called the Neighborhood. For Steve Kelly, the Neighborhood was around 212th Street and Broadway. It is a relatively bucolic part of Manhattan; the rolling acres of In-wood Hill Park are the prevailing influence on the Neighborhood. The apartment buildings are aging modest places where middle-class people live. Kelly grew up in a third-floor walk-up. His mother and father live there still. His father, a retired truck driver who works occasionally as an usher at Shea Stadium, recalled that Steve's brother Bill, 10 years older, had been the original inspiration for Steve's paddling: "Billy got Stephen going. And Billy was good, but he was mostly local. Stephen has been all over the place. He is championship caliber. Don't ask me where it came from. Not me, that's for sure. Instead of hanging round the streets doing nothing like the other kids, Stephen always had this interest in paddling. I don't remember he ever got in much trouble, although once a cop brought him home for throwing snowballs off the roof."

The Kellys were asked if people in the Neighborhood considered their son a hero because he had been an Olympian. "Oh, I don't know about the Neighborhood," Mrs. Kelly said. "His relatives are impressed. But, you know, it was about the same when he was a fireman. His nieces and nephews were always running out in the street when they heard a siren because they thought they might see Stephen on the fire truck. People were probably as impressed he was in the Fire Department as on the Olympic team."

Kelly's training did not stop for so much as one day. The grueling sets went on each afternoon after work. The truck driving job for the Quality Maid Syrup Company was uninspiring. He covered the Bronx and northern suburbs, hauling tanks of syrup into stores or warehouses. One afternoon in January, heading for Yonkers, he said, "Driving a truck doesn't take much thought. I don't mind it. This morning I went up to Mt. Kisco. Usually I take the interstate, but this time I thought I'd go up 9A and check out the rich people's houses in Chappaqua. It was nice.

"I was with the Fire Department more than two years, then 1,000 guys were laid off. I might be rehired sometime. I'm on a waiting list. I'd go back in a minute—it was ideal for training, two days on, two off. I could always work out a deal for special days off. Sometimes I'd write downtown and ask for a month off. They were agreeable because they knew I had to train. I could jog to the clubhouse from the firehouse. The guys at Ladder 36 were 100%. The best thing about the Fire Department was the people you met."

He pulled the truck over to a curb in Yonkers and unloaded some tanks at a store. He returned and began driving farther up into Westchester County. "I couldn't hack this job all the time," he said. "The hours are too confining. I finish work, then I work out two hours, three hours, and I get home after eight o'clock and the kid's in bed already and I'm almost too tired to eat. I watch a little TV. I fall in bed by 9:30 and then I get up and go back to work at 7:30. The Fire Department was perfect. Except one thing. I always had a cough. I was sick a lot in the department. Smoke inhalation. You get a big whiff and the next day your spit is black. You'd be coughing all the time. After a big whiff of smoke I had to run and run to get the stuff out of my lungs. You always had to pray there wouldn't be a fire the day before a race."

It was Jan. 28, only 171 days before the Games. It was about 10 in the morning, about 4° above zero, and Steve was at the Inwood club. He was in high spirits: he had quit the Quality Maid job. He was going to live on his savings and on Feb. 2 he was going to Florida with his wife Margo and his son Stephen, and he was going to devote himself to nothing but training for the Olympic Games. It had been a critical decision. He had withdrawn $1,000 from the bank. He had no idea if it would be enough or what might happen in Florida. "We're apprehensive about the money thing," he said. "My mom's worried, but Margo said, 'Let's go, let's do it.' You get used to this care-free attitude after a while. We'll just have to take pot luck in Florida. Maybe I'll pick oranges. Maybe I'll sell pans door to door. Maybe I'll go on unemployment. I don't know."

Kelly was wearing a red knit stocking cap and his 1972 Olympic sweat suit. He stood on the clubhouse dock above the river, his face pink with the cold. "I can't believe it," he said, "Monday! Monday we go for sunshine." There was sunshine in New York and the Hudson water danced and sparkled. But the river was also alive with ice. Some floes were as big as paddle tennis courts, some small as a child's hand. As the ice glided by the club, it clicked like thousands of dice rattling. Kelly said he had been hoping all week to get on the water, but there had been fog, rain, snow. He had his one-man kayak on the dock and he was watching the ice carefully. It was moving fast enough so that a large piece, sure and brutal as a fire ax, could punch a hole in the kayak. Kelly decided that it was too dangerous to paddle out into the river, but he put his kayak into the water below the dock. He was surrounded by ice and could paddle no more than a stroke or two. He climbed out and said, "I am dying to get on the water. You can stay off only so long and then you get nervous. You've got to have a lot of fortitude to go on training every day. I get into a depression sometimes. I say, '—-the boathouse.' But the next day I go down again.

"It's tougher for Americans to get themselves up every day. Europeans are pushed to do it. Usually they have the government behind them. And they have greater personal motivation. In Europe a champion kayaker is a hero, asked for his autograph. But for me, well, the only reward is proving you're among the best in the world. That's very intangible. A few thousand bucks or a little fame would make it all a lot easier."

At that point, midwinter of 1976, the Olympic construction work in Montreal was snarled, costs were increasing at a stunning rate, there was talk of canceling the Olympics. But Kelly was unconcerned. "I don't know what's going on in Montreal with the construction, the stadiums and restaurants and the Village—all the hoopla," he said. "But you can hold an Olympics—for athletes—without restaurants and stadiums and a Village. The hoopla is for the spectator, not for the competitor. For us, for athletes, there's no problem having an Olympics. You can throw us in an old gym with sleeping bags and we'll race on the nearest lake.

"For us, an Olympics means one thing: you are racing against the best guys in the world."

Through February, March and the early part of April, Kelly and half a dozen American kayakers and several from Canada worked out every day on the warm lagoons near Inverness, Fla. The Hudson River's rushing ice was far behind. One day in January, Steve had driven his truck over a number of New York City bridges, and he had pointed down at the polluted waters and said, "See the places on the shore where there is steam? See where the seagulls gather? Those are sewage outlets. I know every one around Manhattan. When you're a city kayaker, you get to know them like landmarks on the shore."

In Florida the landmarks were cypress trees hung with curtains of moss. Kelly and his mates paddled miles each day through sunny labyrinths of channels and canals. They talked kayaking for hours. They grew more powerful. They gained more stamina. The Kellys lived in an efficiency apartment in an old hotel. It had a tiny parlor, a tiny kitchenette, a tiny bedroom. The boy slept on a mattress on the floor. The apartment cost $130 a month.

Because Kelly was a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's National Development Team (selected the previous summer), he was reimbursed for some of his expenses—about $300 for the whole stay in Florida, including 7¢ a mile for travel to and from New York. Kelly was able to live without picking oranges or selling pots. He collected unemployment checks from the state of Florida, about $95 a week. He spent about $1,200 of his own money.

The Kellys returned to New York on a weekend in mid-April. They drove straight through from Florida with only two hours of rest. Every motel room on the East Coast seemed occupied, overflowing with the spring migration of college students. Margo was expecting the baby in the second week of May. They moved back into the basement of a building on Commonwealth Avenue in the Bronx where they had lived before; it is owned by Margo's father.

One of the first things Kelly did after his return was to register for New York State unemployment benefits. As in Florida, Steve collected $95 a week. To get the check, he spent about three hours each Friday morning standing in long, nearly static lines at a government building in the Bronx. He said, "Well, sure, you waste half a day getting to the window, but there's no choice. There is no way I could hold a job and get in shape."

Margo is 22 and ordinarily a slim, lithe woman, but in the first week of May she was large and awkward with the child she carried. She sat in the living room of the apartment. The paneled walls were Steve's handiwork. There were several planters hung about in macrame slings: her handiwork. "I can't imagine what life would be like if Steve weren't training," she said. "He enjoys it. People should live their lives and have fun. You can't always be plugging away at something."

She was asked if a gold medal in Montreal would make the sacrifices worthwhile. She said, "A gold medal? I wouldn't even believe that. We think just getting into the finals would be fantastic. A gold medal? Well, it would be nice, but I can't see what real benefit we'd get from that. I can't see where it would make much difference—unless maybe you could put it on a job résumé."

In the U.S. competing in an Olympics in no way guarantees an athlete a good job. The Olympics may even be a detriment. Steve Kelly is nothing if not a realist. He said, "When I apply for a job after the Games, after all this training, some personnel guy is going to ask me, 'O.K., what exactly have you been working at for the past year? What's your experience?' And I will say, 'Well, sir, I've been paddling my kayak and that's about all.' People can't believe that. They assume you're not serious. Even winning a medal wouldn't make much difference. In America people think anyone who spends this much time without making money, without at least working on a sport where you can make money, is probably unemployable. Or crazy."

Margo Kelly's baby still had not arrived, but Steve left New York City for a small lake west of Chicago, there to train with the three men who would be his partners in the four-man kayak (K-4) event. During the winter, Steve had all but decided he would forgo entering the singles or doubles events and concentrate on the K-4. Now he was certain. This was thought to be the strongest U.S. kayak entry for Montreal. Kelly said, "We don't have a chance for a medal. But this is the best year of training we've ever had. We took the whole winter, the whole spring and we worked seven days a week. We've already paddled over 1,500 miles this year. We've been very technical about our training program, working on different elements individually—endurance, strength, speed. We say, 'Wow! what a year!' But the Europeans, they do this every year. They have had great training years every year of their lives."

The U.S. Olympic Committee budget for kayaking in 1976 is some $20,000. Kelly believes the world powers—Russia, Hungary, Rumania, East Germany—spend 40 or 50 times that on the sport. A bronze in 1936 is the best any U.S. men's boat has done in the Olympics. The women have done better; in 1964 they won a silver and a bronze.

Steve's K-4 mates were Brent Turner, 22, a student at the University of Montana whose parents owned the lakeside property where the crew was training; Bruce Barton, 19, son of a Horton, Mich. farmer; Peter Deyo, 18, a Western Michigan University student from Niles, Mich. They were doing intense sprints on the lake. A strong wind was lifting gusts of dust off the newly plowed fields beyond the lake and the kayakers' eyes were red from it. The water was choppy, but they worked steadily for two hours. They seemed beautifully synchronized, extremely strong. They paddled fiercely—60 strokes a minute at times—up and down a 1,000-meter course. Then they showered and ate lunch—rice goulash and butterscotch pudding made by Brent Turner's mother. They drank three quarts of milk. They spoke a little about the imminent birth of Steve's second child. Steve said, "Margo will call when she's ready. I hope she times it between the weekends."

On two weekends—May 8-9 and May 15-16—there were races scheduled, the first in Toronto, the second at Lake Sebago near Bear Mountain Park, some 60 miles north of New York City. Except for casual races in Florida, these would be the first competitive opportunities for the Kelly K-4. The paddlers loaded their kayaks on top of the Turner family camper and headed for Canada. There was no word from Margo. They raced and finished second to a Canadian boat, but they were not disappointed. Kelly said, "Everything is right on schedule." Not the baby, who still had not appeared by the following weekend.

At Lake Sebago, on a dismal, drizzly Sunday, the Kelly K-4 had its first U.S. test. Bruce Barton had edged Kelly in the 1,000-meter singles, then Kelly had won the 500 singles. The crew was high spirited. There were two other K-4s in competition, one from the New York Athletic Club, the other from Washington, D.C. Neither seemed a threat because neither crew had had extensive winter training. The distance was 1,000 meters.

The Kelly K-4 got off to a good start (usually not its forte), held bow-to-bow with the New York boat for about 400 yards, then slowly pulled ahead and crossed the finish almost a full length in front, a wide margin of victory.

Kelly was exultant. "It was perfect!" he said. "Just what we planned to do. We held next to them through the first half, then our stamina beat 'em. God, that felt great!" The glow of competition was almost like a halo over his head. "Oh, my God, what a feeling!"

The baby was born on May 26, two weeks late. He was a big 10 pounds 14 ounces, and they named him Peter Joshua. Kelly was in New York at the birth. But, just before Memorial Day, 48 days to the Games, he was gone again. He flew to Cambridge, Ohio, where the Olympic Trials for the K-4s were to be held June 5. For a week the Kelly K-4 crew continued its high-pitched training, and then came race day, dark and rainy. There were five boats in the two-heat 1,000-meter trials and Kelly was totally confident. Rightly so. His kayak won both races by an impressive two seconds. Steve Kelly was an Olympian again.

It had cost him almost a year of his time, more than $2,000 of his small savings, immeasurable amounts of pain and fatigue. His condition was superb, his chest broad, his arms hard. He could paddle at what for most would be exhausting speed and scarcely breathe hard. His body was about as close to a machine as human persistence could make it. He had labored to make it almost immune to breakdown, practically devoid of frailty.

The obvious question was—why do it? Why sacrifice so much? Steve Kelly said, "People who have never been in the Olympics try to make patriotism a motive, but that isn't very effective. It appeals to Little Leaguers, I suppose. Most people just compete as individuals. That's best. I suppose some guys like Mark Spitz might be motivated by all the money they'll make with their gold medals, but that sure doesn't apply to me—either the money or the gold. So when someone asks me why I do this, spend my own money and let a career go, I can't think of anything to say except that I want to compete against the best athletes in the world. Because that means that I'm one of the best athletes in the world. I'm proud of that."

The founder of the modern Olympics was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a melancholy 19th-century visionary. He spent the last years of his life in Lausanne, Switzerland, nearly penniless, rowing in circles on Lake Geneva. He had come to be bitterly disappointed in the Games. Opportunism and politics had ruined his dream.

It was de Coubertin who said, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."

Not many Olympians meet the standard of true amateurism anymore. Those who do are the purest Olympians, and they almost always perform in near-perfect anonymity because they almost always train without the benefit of government support, athletic scholarships or proper facilities. Thus they almost never stand in the winner's spotlight. If he were alive today, the baron would admire Steve Kelly very much indeed.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONO
PHOTOJOHN IACONOScaling the heights in exercise, if never in world competition, Kelly girds for the Games. PHOTOJOHN IACONOA son of whom an Irish mother could be proud, Kelly served as a fireman until he was laid off.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)