PADDLING The Straight And Narrow

June 19, 1989
June 19, 1989

Table of Contents
June 19, 1989

NBA Finals
Baltimore Orioles
Moscow Softball
Jon Lugbill
Walter Hagen
Point After

PADDLING The Straight And Narrow

Jon Lugbill, the undisputed king of white-water canoeing, is a throwback to a time when sports heroes were larger than life

By Douglas S. Looney

Jon Lugbill is perched on a rock formation some 150 feet above the roaring Potomac at Great Falls, Va., after winning yet another race. Incredible Jon Lugbill. Unbelievable Jon Lugbill. From his perch, he looks down on everyone else. That figures. He almost always has. For Lugbill has won four of the last five world white-water single canoe slalom titles and is the prohibitive favorite to win his fifth, on June 24 on Maryland's Savage River. So dominant is Lugbill that he already has the inside track on the gold medal at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, where white-water canoeing will make its return as a medal sport after a 20-year hiatus.

This is an article from the June 19, 1989 issue

Lugbill, 28, who was a child prodigy (he made his first world team when he was 13), is a legend among his fellow canoeists because no male racer in the history of the sport has won more than three individual world titles. But most impressive of all, in a time when heroes are scarce, Jon Lugbill is a real red, white and blue champion.

The race Lugbill had won was a low-key tuneup for the worlds over a stretch of the Potomac that looks like something on a postcard but has rapids so deceptive the National Park Service reports an average of seven drownings there every year. Lugbill nonchalantly wiggles his toes against the rocks and ponders his sport. "I'm not in this to win world championships," he says. "I'm in it because I love it. If I don't win the worlds, if I'm not in the Olympics, that doesn't matter. What's most important is that I gave it a good shot, raised my standards, raised my level." Goodness, he's even a sportsman.

Yet, Lugbill, the all-American boy who believes in love and marriage and hard work and his dog, has done more than simply raise his standards, and thus the sport's. Jamie McEwan, of Lakeville, Conn., who won a bronze medal in the single slalom in the '72 Olympics, says, "It's not all the wins that Jon has had that impress me but the fact that he created the sport."

McEwan is not guilty of hyperbole. Not long after Lugbill started competing internationally, in 1972, he became convinced that the sport didn't quite measure up. "I remember saying all the time, 'No, this is stupid; no, this isn't right; no, no, no,' " Lugbill recalls.

Europeans had dominated the slalom since the world championships commenced, in 1949, and Lugbill didn't understand why that had to be. So he changed it, winning his first world title in 1979 at age 18. He didn't think much of the way the canoes were designed, so he changed that too, creating, with several friends, the more streamlined boat now used by everyone, including the Europeans.

He also didn't think much of the conventional wisdom that said a competitor should work on precision first and speed later. To this day, fast is never fast enough for Lugbill. And he is not afraid to try almost anything, including acrobatics, to produce faster times.

White-water racing demands a high degree of speed and precision because of the unpredictable nature of the 600-meter course. To win you have to maneuver your boat successfully through 25 gates, at least six of which are positioned upstream. If you miss or touch a gate, penalty time is added to your score.

Lugbill has become the consummate artist of this game, painting masterpieces on the river while others are still doing connect-the-dots drawings. He may, in fact, be too good at what he does. The big issue that will probably be decided on the Savage in the single slalom—one of eight canoeing and kayaking events to be raced by about 600 competitors from 30 nations—is who is second-best. Teammate Bob Robison, who grew up with Lugbill in Fairfax, Va., says, "Jon might—might—get beat, but it won't be by anybody better."

When East Germany's Manfred Schubert won the worlds in '57, '61 and '63, his record of three individual titles looked as if it would stand forever. But sometimes forever isn't a very long time. Trying to explain his success, Lugbill says, "I know what it takes to win, and I see others not doing it."

As dawn breaks over Bethesda, Md., and Lugbill starts his workout, he is the living definition of intensity. Others paddle on a feeder canal that leads from the Potomac to the C & O Canal; Lugbill attacks it with the crazed spirit of a linebacker barely under control. Others avoid practice runs; Lugbill tries to get in extra ones, all year long—in the rain and sleet and snow and heat. Since September he has paddled 50 to 55 times a month, each session lasting an hour to an hour and a half. Says Robison, "I don't think he has any more raw talent than the rest of us. He just paddles more."

Nobody has more reason to be frustrated by competing against Lugbill than does Davey Hearn, 30. He is to Lugbill what Alydar was to Affirmed. When Lugbill won his four individual world titles, Hearn finished second each time. Hearn lost by four seconds in '79, .3 of a second in '81, .9 in '83, and 9.8 seconds in '87—all in races that take an average of 3½ minutes. The only time Hearn won the title was in '85, when Lugbill was hampered by a severe injury to his right shoulder. "A big part of the fun is having a guy like Jon to try to beat," says Hearn philosophically. "It wouldn't be nearly as exciting if I knew I would win before each race. That's not racing."

Hearn is not the only American trailing closely in Lugbill's wake. Indeed, the U.S. may become the first team to sweep the first four places in the event at the worlds. In '87, the U.S. took the first three places, so it's no wonder spirit remains high on the U.S. team; each competitor knows that all he has to do to be world champ is beat Lugbill. "I'm not in awe of him," says his 21-year-old heir apparent, Jed Prentice of Bethesda. "He's not God," says Robison.

True. But Jon Lugbill is an extraordinary athlete with an incredible work ethic, one who doesn't seem to be bothered by the fact that most Americans have never heard of his sport. "Internal rewards are so much more fulfilling than external rewards," he says. "So what does it matter that I got good at a sport that nobody else cares about? I care."

Lugbill got involved in white water by accident. As a nine-year-old, Lugbill lived in Fairfax, a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., and he attended a river festival in West Virgina. There he saw a club race and fell in love. Two years later, in 1973, he entered an 11-mile race. The winner took about an hour to finish; Lugbill took two. Twice he fell out of his boat and cried as he struggled to get back in. "I have no idea why I liked it," he says.

By the time he started Oakton High in Vienna, Va., in 1975, he was arranging his academic courses around world championships. Then, in 1979, in Jonquière, Que., competing in a newly designed boat and performing startling new maneuvers in the water—notably pivot turns on stern and bow—he won the world title.

Then and there, he set what seemed an almost impossible goal: three world championships. He wrote a "3" on a piece of paper and put it in his underwear drawer so he would see it every morning. He told no one. And, of course, he won in '81 on a tiny, windy creek in Wales, and again in '83 on an Italian river that resembled a rock pile. He surpassed his goal in '87, soaring to his fourth individual title on a fast and powerful river in France. "When I have spare time," says Lugbill, "my mind thinks, How can I paddle better? It's not just what I find myself thinking about, it's what I want to think about. See, paddling isn't something I have to do. You should always do something because you like to do it, something you can devote yourself to and enjoy. It is not worth suffering to get to an end. The means must be enjoyable."

The dominance of U.S. racers began with the fortuitous coming together of Lugbill and Bill Endicott, the U.S. Olympic coach. Endicott, 43, has a master's in public administration from Harvard and for 10 years worked on Capitol Hill in various positions. In 1982 he quit his government job to pursue coaching full-time. "Going to Harvard and working for Congress wasn't as good as canoeing," he says. "Canoeing became reality for me, and the rest of my life became an annoying interruption."

At his competitive peak, Endicott finished ninth in 1971 in the world white-water two-man canoe championships. Still, while Lugbill is the heart of the U.S. team, Endicott is the soul. Lugbill admits that on horrible winter mornings he is tempted sometimes to skip practice. "Then I lie there, and I know that Bill will be down there, sitting by the same tree, regardless," says Lugbill. "So I go." Endicott says, "I think the same thing about Jon when I'm lying in bed. So I go."

Endicott became the volunteer coach of the U.S. team in 1977, and since then his racers have won 39 world medals, 20 of them gold. In addition to his four individual golds, Lugbill has won five in team competition. Says Endicott, "I feel like King Arthur, and by magic, I came to this canal. Then these knights, like Lugbill and Hearn, show up at the table. And they are magic. It's not real life."

Endicott's metaphor may not be that farfetched. Lugbill, after all, is as squeaky clean as Galahad himself. He was cocaptain of his high school football team. In 1985 he married his high school sweetheart, Gill Bickers. You probably guessed that she was one of the school's cheerleaders. Says Gill, now a high school biology teacher, "Jon wins because of plain old-fashioned tenacity and desire."

Lugbill has a good, solid job in the environmental programs department of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He has a house in Bethesda and a golden retriever named Jasper. "I like things basic," he says over a basic cheese pizza. "I'm not screwed up. I'm not on my third wife and doing coke. That's no way to live." Both Jon and Gill are graduates of a good, solid school, the University of Virginia.

He pauses, sips a glass of water—basic tap water—and says, "Ten years from now, I don't know what I will be doing. But I know two things for sure—I will be happy and I will be happily married. We will keep our act together. Not for a month or a year or a few years. Forever. I feel you control your mind. You don't let your mind control you. Life is like walking a high wire. If you don't look down, it's fine."

It is no wonder that Lugbill was chosen, in 1985, to appear on the Wheaties box, a public affirmation of his wholesomeness. In fact, he was on more than a million boxes. "But being on a cereal box in no way compares to a world championship," he says. Marriott Hotels recently signed him up (four years, $40,000) as its spokesman. Can the American Dairy Association be far behind?

Sometimes Lugbill runs among the monuments in Washington, D.C., stopping to do sit-ups at the Lincoln Memorial. Sometimes he rides to work on his bike. A basic bike. Mostly, however, he paddles. And when race courses have to be set up, part of the drudgery of the sport, Lugbill is there. "If you weasel out," he says, "people won't like you. I try to do my share, and a little bit more." Of course.

Late one evening after a workout, an exhausted Lugbill talks about the basics. "A lot of famous people get screwed up, don't they?" he says. "I'm definitely not going to let that happen. Paddling a canoe does not make me a great person. If you want to be great, you have to go out and do great things for other people." He falls silent and listens to the crickets chirp along the feeder canal. He looks around and says, "This is where I want to be, at this time, in this place."

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOIn a training session, Endicott urges on his troops from the banks of a Potomac canal.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOLugbill, in keeping with his heroic image, works out in front of the Lincoln Memorial.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOLugbill suits up by putting on a spray skirt that keeps water out of the canoe's cockpit.PHOTOKEVIN O'BRIENHearn, who plays Alydar to Lugbill's Affirmed, slips through a gate at Great Falls.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO