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America's Deliverance

Scott Strausbaugh and Joe Jacobi gave U.S. paddlers their first Whitewater gold in history

As in Paddling a Canoe, there are two sides to consider when figuring how best to negotiate a Whitewater slalom course. One approach holds that a paddler should "go clean," racing conservatively to avoid incurring any five-second penalties for touching a gate. The more reckless approach—call it hell-for-lather—says a paddler should pick a line on the course and blow down it, confident he can handle anything the river throws at him.

When U.S. paddler Scott Strausbaugh dropped in on Whitewater assistant coach Fritz Haller on the eve of Sunday's two-man canoe competition, it was to tell Haller that he wanted to risk getting dirty. Strausbaugh believed that was the only way his boat could emerge from a closely clustered pack of canoes on a fairly easy course. But neither he nor Haller thought to inform Joe Jacobi, who sits aft in the canoe, about their conversation. "It's not that we wanted to keep it from him," Haller would say. "It's just that Scott leads the boat. Joe needs to turn the boat, to keep it clean."

Blissfully ignorant, Jacobi was one splendid swabbie the next day. He helped keep two potentially dirty runs spotless, and suddenly two guys who had turned in only middling results on the international slalom circuit during their six years together had become the first Americans ever to win gold medals in either Whitewater canoeing or kayaking. Having champagne dumped over a fiberglass helmet isn't quite the same sensation as having bubbly matting your hair, but it'll do.

In their first of two runs, Strausbaugh, 29, and Jacobi, 22, who live and train on the rivers of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, negotiated the course in the Pyrenean mountain town of La Seu d'Urgell nearly six seconds faster than anyone else in the field (the better of the two runs counts in the standings). Afterward they knew enough not to let smugness set in. A day earlier they had seen teammate Jon Lugbill, a five-time world champion in the one-man canoe, turn in the second-best early time, only to be trumped by two paddlers in the second run and miss out on a medal. "Fritz told us following our first run that we had a lot of work to do," said Strausbaugh later. "He wasn't going to let what happened yesterday happen again. We knew there was a good chance our time in the first run would get beat. And it was."

Yet of those faster times turned in during the final run, Strausbaugh and Jacobi's was again the fastest, the result of another flawless navigation through the course's 25 gates, including six that require the paddlers to reverse direction and enter the gate while going upstream. The new time to beat was two seconds better than their first run, and no one beat it. "To have a clean run at that speed is really brave," said Haller. "To win the Olympics, it's not enough to be prepared. You have to take a chance."

Strausbaugh, a former environmental science student and sometime guitarist, and Jacobi, a former water boy for his high school football team, may have won more than just gold for their own trophy cases. They, along with 28-year-old Dana Chladek of the U.S., who earned a bronze medal in the women's solo kayak, may have won for other paddlers the chance to do the same. Whitewater slalom has been contested in only one other Olympics, in 1972, and it's still not officially on the program for the '96 Games in Atlanta. Both the International Olympic Committee and the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee must sign off on the sport, which is tentatively scheduled—a little Deliverance banjo music, please—to take place along a stretch of the Ocoee River, just over the Tennessee line.

"Either put it in for good, or keep it out for good," said Jamie McEwan, who got a bronze medal in the solo canoe event 20 years ago at the Munich Games and narrowly missed another bronze on Sunday in the two-man canoe with Lecky Haller, Fritz's brother. "Jon Lugbill's my hero, and it's not fair for a guy like him to have had only one Olympics to paddle in."

Nor was it fair for McEwan to have had to wait so long for another chance. For what it's worth, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was on hand for the canoe medal ceremonies, said if the decision were up to him, the sport would be back to stay. Strausbaugh and Jacobi took his remarks as a hopeful sign.

"Not bad for a water boy," U.S. Whitewater head coach Bill Endicott said when he saw Jacobi doused with champagne. Not bad, indeed.




Strausbaugh (foreground) decided on an all-or-nothing strategy, but didn't tell Jacobi.