Alone, out on the water, Juri Jaanson could put all the who-am-I questions out of his mind.
Perfection was all. How best to harness maybe 400 different muscles toward moving his boat directly onward, tearing the water, ripping it straight and fast? To get a purchase with the 3-meter oars and leave the eddies behind? To find the moment that takes him past mere effort?
And perfection, at times, was his. Jaanson has been among the best. He was at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He placed third in the 1989 single scull world championships in Yugoslavia. In 1990, in Tasmania, he took the crown.
But he was what the Western world called a Soviet.
When he won, it was the Soviet anthem that played. When he raced, it was for the hammer and sickle.
It was hard, he says now, to explain to Western reporters just whom he represented. And it was hard to explain it to himself.
Jaanson, at 27, calls himself a "lone wolf." He was inside the big Soviet sports machine when it was in its glory, and he hated it. He hated the way the world was closed off to him. He hated the bureaucratic stupidity. And he hated his Soviet identity.
"Now, when I go to Barcelona, I'm free," he said. "Any stranger can see I have an Estonian flag on my chest. I'm an Estonian and I stand for Estonia -- and it feels really good."
The new Estonia, not even a year old yet, is sending its own small team, 26 strong, to the Olympics, as are Latvia and Lithuania. It's a matter of tremendous pride. The torrent of money that once flowed from Moscow for sports has dried up: There are no lavish training centers in Estonia, for instance, or even much food, and the Estonian and Lithuanian teams are sharing one plane for the flight to Barcelona, Spain. But Estonians have had a little experience with adversity -- and maybe no one exemplifies the national spirit as well as Jaanson. At age 2, he had a severe case of pneumonia, which nearly killed him. Doctors gave him giant doses of antibiotics that saved his life but left him almost completely deaf.
His childhood was lonely. The whole Soviet ethos was to join the group, to be a member, a cog. But Jaanson was shuttled off to a special school for the deaf, where he could be ignored.
But his grandfather, a retired art teacher, took it upon himself to work with Jaanson. With help as well from a dedicated doctor, Jaanson obtained a primitive hearing aid, and, at 12, made the unprecedented leap to a regular school.
"It was like a different world," he said. "And it was the most difficult time of my life. They weren't very eager to accept me."
Unable still to hear very well, having gotten used to keeping to himself, Jaanson never became a part of the social life of the school. He was an individualist, and not well-liked because of it.
His grades suffered, because he had to rely on lip-reading most of the time, and many teachers were accustomed to speaking into the blackboard as they wrote out problems.
"I was like a hermit," he said. And he wasn't any good at sports, either.
Drawn to rowing
But, one day, a coach from Tartu University came by looking for boys he could interest in rowing, which is not a very big sport in Estonia.
Jaanson said he felt instantly drawn to the sport. Even from the beginning, he always has rowed alone, in a scull, responsible to no one but himself.
He went to Tartu, but dropped out of the university when he decided the courses were worthless; he stuck with rowing.
From 1984 to 1986, when he turned 21, he rowed on his own in Estonia. He grew bigger, stronger and better, and in 1987 was asked tojoin the Soviet team.
They rowed in Russia in the summer and on a river in Azerbaijan in the winter. He made enemies throughout the sports establishment, because he wasn't a team player. He was "seduced" at one point into rowing in a pair, "but the experience was disastrous."
At the same time, though, he said: "I saw the 'kitchen' side of Soviet rowing -- what a guest normally wouldn't see -- and that's been very useful.
"Apart from all the stupidity in the training campaign, Russia is a very big country, and I met some real geniuses among the coaches. They helped me with technique, and it was very good."
One of the best Russian coaches, he said, was Igor Grinko, who is now with the American team.
Jaanson came in fifth in the 1987 world championships in Denmark, finished eighth in Seoul and then steadily improved.
At 6 feet 3, 202 pounds, he said, "my physical abilities are not so good, but I can make it with technique."
An intense competitor
Unmarried, Jaanson lives in a cottage at the Estonian rowing center in Parnu. He has better hearing aids now, and is determinedly learning English. He places such a high emphasis on mental preparation that he won't even go near a boat for 40 minutes after an interview, to give himself time to clear his mind.
The government pays him 250 kroons a month (about $21), which doesn't even cover a quarter of his grocery bill.
So Jaanson also helps his brother in a new import business, and untilthis year sold oar blades that he designed himself and had manufactured in Lithuania. He won the 1990 world championship with those blades, but he has since been put out of business by a new -- and much better -- oar made by a firm called Concept II, in Morrisville, Vt.
The handles of these new oars are only 2.91 meters long, and the blades are asymmetrical. They look something like medieval halberds. All the scullers will be using them at Barcelona.
Jaanson's boat, an Empacher from Germany, cost $6,000 -- which is one of the reasons rowing is not big in Estonia. A bank in Tartu bought it for him.
There's something about overcoming adversity that makes good athletes here. Another Estonian star is Erika Salumae, a cyclist who won a gold medal in 1988, and who grew up, abandoned, in a state orphanage. She has continued to train in Moscow, because there is nowhere to do it at home, but she, too, will be wearing the Estonian flag in Spain.
A try at skiing
In 1991, Juri Jaanson flirted with cross-country skiing, and his rowing -- so dependent on perfection of technique -- suffered immediately. He finished 12th that year at the championships in Austria.
He came back to rowing and "step by step" has rebuilt his technique.
"I'm getting it back," he said. "You know, basically, top-level competition comes down to psychological war. At the top level, everybody has the ability. It comes down to will: I am going to win.
"And, psychologically, of course, it was so difficult when Estonia was part of the Soviet empire. But now my identity is clear. And that's so much better. I know who I am. I am Estonian."