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Haller loves whitewater's rock and roll


Fourth in a series of profiles of local Olympians.

He dances on the water, the churning froth around him supplying the melody. It's a tune Lecky Haller has known his entire adult life. It seduces him, tortures him, rewards him.

Haller, 43, the world's premier tandem slalom canoeist, hopes the whitewater in Sydney will play him a victory song.

This is not the first Olympics for the Glencoe native - he finished fourth in 1992 - but in all probability it is the last in a career that began in the early 1980s.

He and partner Matt Taylor, 20, will race against nine other boats in the tandem, or C-2, class. Taylor is the bowman, lining up the boat for its run through the 300-yard course that neither man has negotiated before. Haller is the engine in the back, muscling the canoe through the gates, some while facing upstream.

Haller says they are paddling very well right now. Late last month, as the final tuneup before heading to Sydney, they easily won the national championship, burying the runner-up by more than a minute.

"The course here [at the Olympics] suits us well," Haller says. "If we get the two runs we are capable of, we very well can be in the medals. We are not the favorites, but I think that gives us a better chance and we can sneak up on some teams."

Haller knows what it's like to be the victim of a sneak attack. Entering the competition four years ago to determine which two-man canoe team would represent the United States at the Atlanta Games, Haller and his brother were ranked No. 1 in the world. They were caught from behind by a pair of underdogs.

The loss was especially painful for Haller because his younger brother Fritz had come out of retirement to join him.

"I felt so horrible for my brother, who had risked everything and made an incredible comeback after six years out of the sport," Lecky Haller says. "I had already been to the Olympics in '92 and I wanted this a lot for my brother."

The boys learned to paddle at Camp Mondamin in Tuxedo, N.C. Their parents, Alex, a pediatric surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Emily, an obstetrician, paid the boys' tuition by working as camp doctors.

Lecky attended the Gilman School and excelled at football and lacrosse. He received a lacrosse scholarship from Johns Hopkins University, but transferred after his freshman year to Washington College, where he was a two-time All-American.

Fritz Haller took to whitewater first and coaxed Lecky onto the Gunpowder River, a stone's throw from their home.

Their father says their styles complemented each other: Fritz, more outgoing and aggressive; Lecky, quiet and focused.

Lecky graduated from Washington College in 1981, and the following year the Haller boys blasted onto the international scene, winning the Europa Cup.

"The sport wasn't on the Olympic program when I started, and there was never a hint that it would be until 1989 or so," Lecky Haller recalls. "There was no money at all. You got a uniform for the world championships and were told to go get them. It was all on your own."

The brothers became known for their fast paddling rate ("warp speed" in Haller-speak) developed after they studied film of the 1981 World Cup bronze medalists. The pictures were deceiving - the projector was fast - but that didn't change the Hallers' style.

In 1983, they rose from the lowest seed to win the World Cup as Team GRIT -- Glencoe Racers In Training. They proved the win was no fluke by finishing No. 1 in the 1984 national championships.

Fritz retired from the sport in 1985 to teach high school and coach wrestling only to return in 1990 to help coach the U.S. canoe team and then get back in the boat for one last try at a medal.

The brothers lived in a rented house in Bethesda to be near the training area along the C&O; Canal and drove to their races in a beat-up blue Mazda with 100,000 miles on the odometer.

After they failed to make the 1996 Olympics, Lecky paddled solo for a year until he hooked up with Taylor, a student of his at a Connecticut prep school who had been taught to paddle at Camp Mondamin by Fritz. Both men are members of a whitewater racing club that operates on the Nantahala River near Bryson City, N.C.

Haller and Taylor, ranked 15th in the world this year, not only have to overcome human challengers but also the tortures produced by the technological marvel that is the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, located an hour west of Sydney.

Opened in March 1999, the $4.1 million facility is Australia's first artificial slalom course. Five powerful underground pumps create the rapids, which tear through a channel that varies in width from 26 to 39 feet and averages 3 1/2 -feet in depth. The vertical drop from beginning to end is 18 feet.

Teams will get two runs, each of which take about two minutes. There are no practice runs, and paddlers see the course layout only the day before competition. Points are deducted for missing any of the 20 to 25 gates, passing through them in the wrong direction or striking them with the boat, paddles or their bodies.

Whitewater slalom, in the Olympics for only the fourth time, is not only physically taxing, it is mentally challenging. And paddlers say experience reading the water can be the deciding factor.

That is where Haller, the oldest and most experienced C-2 paddler in Sydney, has an edge.

"What keeps me going is that I really love what I'm doing, striving for that dance on the water," Haller says. "There is never a promise of glory or money, [but] the feeling you have in your heart after making a good run is indescribable."

Olympic profiles

The five other Baltimore-area athletes profiled during the week leading up to the Sydney Games:

Sept. 8: Swimmer Tommy Hannan

Sept. 9: Triathlete Joanna Zeiger

Yesterday: Hurdler James Carter

Tomorrow: Swimmer Michael Phelps

Wednesday: Gymnast Elise Ray

A special section previewing the 2000 Games will run in Wednesday's paper. It will include the Ray profile, a list of other Olympians from Maryland, a look at track sensation Marion Jones and 20 other athletes to watch, plus a venue map, TV schedule and more. For Internet archives of The Sun's Olympic coverage, go to www.sunspot.net/sports/olympics/.

Haller file

Date of birth: Aug. 2, 1957

Height: 6 feet

Weight: 175 pounds

Residence: Bryson City, N.C.

High school: Gilman School, 1975

College: Washington College, 1981

Club: Nantahala Racing Club

Olympic event: C-2, tandem slalom

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