But yesterday, on the man-made course in La Seu d'Urgell, Joe Jacobi, a Maryland native who trains in North Carolina, and Scott Strausbaugh got more than they had bargained for. They won the gold medal in the men's double canoe to close out the whitewater slalom competition.
"We came into this race feeling there were five to eight boats that could win," Strausbaugh said. "We knew if we went out there and had the best race we were capable of, we would be in the medals. We never dreamed of a gold."
Jacobi and Strausbaugh won with a two-race combined time of 122.41 seconds. Miroslav Simek and Jiri Rohan of Czechoslovakia were second in 124.25. Franck Adisson and Wilfrid Forgues of France were third in 124.38.
Finishing fourth and missing the bronze by less than four seconds were Lecky Haller, a Gilman School graduate from Glencoe, Md., and Jamie McEwan, a 1972 bronze medalist who lives in Lakeville, Conn.
In men's single kayak, Italy's Pierpaolo Ferrazzi won the gold, France's Sylvain Curinier took the silver and Germany's Jochen Lettmann took the bronze.
The Americans were unable to win a medal in the event as Eric Jackson of Barnesville, Md., was 13th, Rich Weiss, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., was 16th and Scott Shipley of Poulsbo, Wash., was 27th.
Jacobi, who attended Winston Churchill High in Potomac, Md., with Olympic gold-medal swimmer Mike Barrowman, said his former classmate pushed him toward a gold.
"His swim in the 200 breaststroke was really inspiring," Jacobi said. "That was really, really great, and then he sent me this letter through the electric mail system. It talked about really staying focused and having fun. And that's what we have been doing."
After watching their teammate, Jon Lugbill, of Bethesda, Md., plummet from first to fourth in the men's single canoe competition Saturday, Jacobi and Strausbaugh pushed through the gates on their two trips down the course.
"We had two clean runs with no touches, no penalties," said Strausbaugh, of Almond, N.C. "I think that's phenomenal for anyone out here, especially for us."
Jacobi and Strausbaugh are unsure whether they will continue to race together four more years. Dana Chladek, the bronze medalist in women's kayak, also was unclear about her plans in the sport. But if they all continue to train, they may find themselves competing at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Yesterday, International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said his organization "will do everything we can to ensure that whitewater canoeing be present at Atlanta. We have an 80 percent chance of achieving this."
"I hope Mr. Samaranch caught some of the enthusiasm," Lugbill said. "It's exciting for us that he was here. I think we have a real good shot to get in to Atlanta."