'I could hear him cheering' Karnaugh honors late dad, but with his hat, not medal


BARCELONA, Spain -- The straw hat belonged to his father, the retired truck driver from New Jersey.

His father wore it to age-group swimming meets, took it along on weekend fishing trips. And he had it on the last night of his life, when he was in a stadium bathed in color and filled with joy, taking pictures as his son marched and waved up to the stands.

Ron Karnaugh was holding the hat, now, his blue eyes filling with tears, his voice breaking, his brown hair still wet from a race. He had just finished sixth in the men's 200-meter individual medley final at the 1992 Summer Olympics last night. Over and over, he kept wondering aloud why he hadn't raced faster, why he "hadn't performed up to his capabilities."

His legs shook. His hands clasped the hat.

"It reminds me of a lot of great moments," he said. "He's a great dad. He loved me dearly. He's my best friend. He'll always be there with me. That's why I'm an Olympian today. I could hear him cheering."

Six days after his father, Peter, 60, died while watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, Karnaugh tried to race, tried to win a gold.

But he couldn't.

"I've been thinking how all of this happened," he said. "Obviously, it's hard to accept."

The story wasn't supposed to end like this. This was the Olympics, after all, the stuff of dreams. The town of Maplewood, N.J., had opened its heart and its wallet to the Karnaughs, saving nickels and dimes and raising $27,000 to send the family on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. The town was planning the grandest of homecomings for its favored son.

Now, funeral arrangements are pending.

At the opening ceremonies, as the world was coming together, the Karnaughs' lives were about to fall apart. The evening started gloriously. The athletes marched in and Peter kept clicking his camera, waving at his son. And Ron waved back, remembering later, "It was a very precious moment in my life." As he returned to the athletes' village, Karnaugh told a teammate he was feeling good. The ceremony was terrific. His race would come at the end of the swimming competition.

Then came the knock on his door at 3, and the short trip to a receiving area where his mother and sister told him the news that his father had suffered a heart attack during the opening ceremony and had died earlier that morning.

Karnaugh wept. The U.S. Olympic Committee offered the family counselors. AT&T; chipped in with unlimited phone calls home, and legal advice to help the family with Spanish authorities. Dan Jansen, the Olympic speed skater whose own athletic career was touched by the death of a sister on the eve of his first race at the 1988 Calgary Games, wrote Karnaugh a letter.

There was never a doubt he would race.

"That's not what my father would have wanted me to do," Karnaugh said. "I'm not a quitter, no matter what."

As he walked on the pool deck for last night's race, wearing that straw hat, the crowd cheered, and some began to chant his name. Up in the stands his mother, Jean, was standing and taking pictures.

"I could feel the adrenalin rush," he said. "I was wearing the hat. The hat he was wearing when he died. I was thinking of him. In the back of my mind, subconsciously, I could hear him cheering. That gave me a lift. I was beyond fire."

But he was in water, racing against the world-record holder, Tamas Darnyi of Hungary. For three laps he gave the powerful Hungarian a race, hanging in third as he came off the wall for the freestyle. But in the final 50, he kept falling farther and farther behind, touching sixth, watching while Darnyi got the gold and American Gregory Burgess got the silver, and another Hungarian, Attila Czenea, took the bronze.

Up in the stands, Karnaugh's mother was crying and the Hungarians were cheering and unfurling flags. Karnaugh left the deck, holding the straw hat in his left hand, walking out of his Olympics.

"I didn't achieve my goal," he said. "I've been thinking about winning this race since I was in eighth grade. And now, 10 years later, at age 26, I tried to achieve that goal and couldn't."

Still, he wanted to tell the world about his father. "The salt of the earth," he called him. The big man who didn't blink an eye when his son told him he was leaving medical school for a year to train full-time for the Olympics.

"He was a man with a big heart," he said. "He was a very determined person, much like myself. He loved his family very much. He loved me very dearly. That's why I'm here. My swimming is due to him. He basically taught me the importance and values of hard work and dedication and to never quit. He taught me to try things and to achieve a goal. His influence made me the person I am."

The son clutched the hat, honoring a father, holding on to a memory.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad