OBSCURE WORLD CHAMPS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BETHESDA -- When the canoeing brothers, Fritz and Lecky Haller, were invited to throw out the first ball at an Orioles game this month, their minds began to roam.

There they were, brushing shoulders with baseball millionaires. The Hallers won their first world two-man canoe championship in 1983, the same year that Cal Ripken was the American League's MVP and led the Orioles to the world championship.

World championship? Major-league baseball's world doesn't stretch beyond the United States. The Hallers beat Czechs, Poles, East Germans and Frenchmen for their world crown.

"We have a lot of respect for the baseball players and their good training habits," Fritz Haller said. "But out there at the park that night, watching Cal, thinking about his World Series and our world championship in 1983, his millions and our $15,000 a year from the U.S. Olympic Committee, well, we were struck by the disparity.

"Not that we're bitter. But we're real world champions, and we've been on top ever since. Of course, so has Cal."

The Hallers, native Baltimoreans and Gilman graduates, leave this week for the World Canoe and Kayak Championships, Aug. 29-Sept. 3 in Nottingham, England. Their intent, on the 29th, is to win the two-man canoe for the first time since 1983. "Any of the top six could win," Lecky Haller said. "We're one of those."

Even a top-eight finish by an American boat will give the United States two spots instead of one at the Atlanta Olympics next summer. The worlds are one of a series of qualifiers for the Olympics.

"We're the fastest boat on the U.S. team, by far," Fritz Haller said.

They're also the oldest. Lecky, 38, and Fritz, 36, figure that next year will be their final realistic chance to win an Olympic medal. First, however, they must make the U.S. team at the Olympic Trials next May over a $21 million man-made course on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, which also will serve as the Olympic course.

The two-man race is contested over a 400-meter slalom course of whitewater rapids spiked with 25 gates, five requiring upstream paddling. It's like slalom skiing, except, as Fritz noted, "the water is moving under you." Each boat gets two runs, with the slowest time thrown out.

"It's like the high hurdles, except that the hurdles -- the gates -- are constantly moved around," Fritz said. "Because of that, no world-record times are kept."

The World Championships are held every odd year. The only other time the Hallers entered aside from 1983 was 1985, when they finished 13th. Had it not been for a 50-second penalty for missing a gate, they would have won.

The two-man canoe event has been on the Olympic agenda only twice, in 1972 and 1992. At the Barcelona Olympics, Lecky was fourth in the two-man with Jamie McEwan, and Fritz, having retired, was the U.S. assistant coach.

But the Olympics stirred Fritz's competitive juices. On the plane to Barcelona, he talked to Dennis Koslowski, a Greco-Roman wrestler who won a bronze medal at the age of 35. At opening ceremonies, he stood with Bill Endicott, the U.S. head coach.

"Do you think I can make it back?" Fritz said.

"Yes," Endicott said. "Go for it."

Lecky and Fritz, both separated from their wives, train year-round -- on the Potomac in the spring and summer and in Chile in the winter -- existing on the $15,000 apiece parceled out by the USOC to the "elite" canoeists. Half of the U.S. team trains on the Potomac because it offers flat water as well as rapids.

"We're full-time paddlers," Lecky said. "You can't work at a so-called real job and expect to get an Olympic medal."

The Hallers were introduced to canoeing as boys, at summer camps on a lake in North Carolina. They played other sports in school, but their interest in canoe racing was piqued when they watched on TV as McEwan became the only U.S. canoeing medalist in the 1972 Olympics. McEwan became their idol and inspiration, and, in 1992, Lecky's Olympic teammate.

Fritz has been a member of the U.S. team since 1981, and Lecky joined him a year later after watching his brother win a mixed world title with Boo Hayman in Wales.

Lecky has been first, second or third in World Cup competition each of the past five years. Since coming out of retirement, Fritz also has prospered, finishing third in the World Cup with Lecky last year.

Unlike Ripken, Fritz said, "We labor in obscurity in this country." Abroad, the two are minor celebrities.

"After we won the worlds in 1983 in Italy, we were signing autographs," Fritz said. "People were looking at our boat to see if it contained magic."

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