BACK TO NATURE AND THE OLYMPICS Bethesda's Lugbill is paddling after whitewater gold


Dickerson -- He trains in the shadow of a power plant, roaring through a hot tub of surging water with nothing more than a canoe, a paddle and a heart.

In a place where electricity is generated, Jon Lugbill is seeking to forge an Olympic gold medal.

He is a whitewater slalom canoe racer, the best of his generation, perhaps the best there ever was. Five times he has won the world championship in an event the world has rarely noticed.

But after a 20-year absence from the Olympics, the sport is being brought in from the forests, put on the great stage of the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

To get there, Lugbill must advance through the U.S. Olympic trials, to be held on the Savage River near Bloomington in Western Maryland, Saturday and Sunday. So he refines his obscure art in a northwestern corner of Montgomery County, dotted with farms and executive homes that lie by the Potomac River.

The spring day is bright and brittle. Puffs of white smoke rise like cotton clouds from the tallest of three stacks of Potomac Electric. Turbines hum. Water from the Potomac, drawn in to cool the generated steam, pours back to the river through a concrete canal.

It is in this canal where Lugbill transforms himself from a shy environmentalist into a raging bull. The course is 350 meters from start to finish. Twenty-five slalom gates are suspended from wires. Buried in the concrete bed are 75 17-ton gum-ball-shaped concrete mounds that can scratch or even tear apart Lugbill's 22-pound fiberglass and Kevlar canoe.

Four other paddlers are in the water. Lugbill's golden retriever Jasper watches from the bank, darting through the stand of maples and sycamores.

"Imagine being on a people mover and trying to hit a takeoff board every few seconds," he says. "You have to hit the exact point every time. It's not just a question of who is the strongest. This sport requires power in a given time in a given way."

Lugbill kneels and covers the canoe's cockpit with a rubber spray skirt that circles his waist. He and the boat are now one, an engine connected to a chassis. One moment, he bolts downstream. The next, he is pivoting and straining, paddling furiously while beating upstream. He glides through the gates. He avoids the gum balls.

After a two-minute ride, Lugbill reaches the bank. Beads of water drip from his helmet, his arms are wet and he is smiling.

A5 "Awesome," he says. "It's like a roller coaster."

This is a back-to-nature sport. Nothing fancy. The dress is casual. Barefoot even. Just men and women in boats trying to tame raging water. They go from river to river, traveling the world in search of the perfect ride.

"It's a little like surfing," said Cathy Hearn, the 1979 women's kayak world champion. "You have to migrate where the water is."

They are mostly nomads in boats, moving from Tennessee to Massachusetts to Washington to France to Spain and back again. They take jobs on the fly, share floor space in each other's rented rooms, camp out in woods near the rivers. Their world championship appears to be nothing more than a post-baby boom Boy Scout Jamboree.

But Lugbill, 30, is different. He has roots. Lives in Bethesda with ,, his wife Gillian and 18-month-old daughter Kelly. Works as an environmental planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Drives a 1988 Honda Civic that is just big enough to accommodate himself, five paddles, two equipment bags, one dog, one child seat and one canoe strapped to the roof.

He is 5 feet 8, 175 pounds. An average guy, until you look closer, and see forearms that could come out of a Popeye cartoon. He ponders every question, measuring answers with the same careful cadence he brings to paddling.

"I consider training for the Olympics an opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "I'm doing what I love. My God, this is great. I'm not delaying life. I still have one."

In whitewater slalom racing, Lugbill is close to being a living legend. He began paddling as an 11-year-old with his two older brothers, and three years later, in 1975, raced in his first world championships in Yugoslavia. Quickly, the prodigy became a star. He won individual world titles in 1979, 1981, 1983, 1987 and 1989, each time beating his training partner and perennial silver medalist, David Hearn. He also earned seven gold medals in team races.

"When I first started this sport, it was just an after-school activity," he said. "Then it grew into something. It was almost fanatical."

Lugbill became engrossed in canoe design, building and refining his boats. He also developed a new, lighter helmet, and helped create curved paddles. This might be arcane stuff in a car-crazed country, but, in the water, Lugbill was helping revolutionize a sport, turning rivers into raceways.

He overpowered the world on the Savage in 1989 with a final run that was every bit as exciting as an end-to-end slam dunk by Michael Jordan. The 6,500 spectators along the banks screamed with every stroke, and, when the run was over, U.S. Olympic coach Bill Endicott proclaimed Lugbill "the paddler of the century."

The glory lasted for about 10 minutes. Lugbill went back to his car to change clothes, saw the back window was smashed in and then was stopped by a Maryland state policeman as he tried to drive to the medal ceremony.

Lugbill and his contemporaries appeared almost destined to remain deep in the shadows of world sport. Few cared about races among zealots in the woods. Whitewater slalom appeared in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but it was merely a prop on a man-made river that the Germans built to show off their engineering skills.

Twenty years later, the sport is back in the Olympics, thanks to the Ganyets of La Seu d'Urgell, a town 90 miles northwest of Barcelona. Pooling their talents as mayor, architect and engineer, the three brothers pushed the political levers of the Catalan region and the local Olympic organizing committee.

A $9 million course was built along the River Segre.

Whitewater received the five-ring Olympic seal of approval.

"For me, it made it easier to go on," Lugbill said. "I had received so much support over the years from my family, from work. If I was just training for another world championship, they might have said, 'You've already got five. What is this all about anyway?' "

The Olympic designation gave Lugbill and the sport new status. After years of training on a relatively placid feeder canal in Bethesda, the paddling community scored a coup last fall when PEPCO agreed to build a $75,000 course in the canal at its Dickerson plant. The course opened by Thanksgiving, enabling the paddlers to train year-round in the heated water.

"Only in America could something like this happen," Lugbill said. "This came out of the sky for us."

For Lugbill, the Dickerson run appeared just in time. After finishing fourth at the 1991 world championships in Yugoslavia, he became convinced that he needed to concentrate on only one project: the Olympics.

In an era of millionaire Olympians, Lugbill and his sport are as close to amateur as the Summer Games remain. He has a modest, $40,000, four-year endorsement deal with Marriott that runs out in the fall, and he receives $10,000 annually in grants from the U.S. Olympic Committee. He won't get rich racing, but he has enough money to finance a 10-month leave of absence from his job to train full time.

"And if I run out of money, I've got credit cards," he said. "I don't care if I'm broke by Sept. 1."

He has few illusions about what the Olympics can do for his career. If he wins the gold medal, he won't wake up the next day as America's newest sports star. More likely, he will slip back into obscurity. But the greatest paddler of his generation still has one more medal to win, one more river to conquer.

"I have a strong belief that, as long as you're an active athlete, you're only as good as your last race," he said. "When you've retired, you can look back and give a historic view of how your career was. I won't get caught up in any perceptions now. The idea is to do your best, to do better than anyone else."

Olympic trials for whitewater slalom racing

Where: The Savage River near Bloomington in Garrett County.

When: Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

Tickets: $10 available through Ticketmaster (children under 12 free). Information, call (800) 695-4221 or (301) 387-6666.

Parking: Designated areas only, with spectators arriving on the site via shuttle bus.

At stake: Three Olympic berths each in women's single kayak and men's single kayak, single canoe and double canoe. First- and second-place finishers in Saturday's races and winners of ,, Sunday's races receive Olympic berths.

Favorites: Dana Chladek (women's single kayak); Rich Weiss (men's single kayak); Jon Lugbill (men's single canoe); Lecky Haller-Jamie McEwan (men's double canoe).

Primer: Competitors careen down a raging river, negotiating a 350-meter course that includes 25 gates, approximately eight entered going upstream. There is a five-second penalty for hitting a gate -- two poles suspended above water by wires -- and a 50-second penalty for missing a gate.

Equipment: Competitors wear helmets, buoyancy vests and spray skirts that cover the cockpits of the boats. In kayaks, competitors sit with legs extended to foot braces and use double-bladed paddles. In canoes, competitors kneel and use single-bladed paddles.

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