As dawn breaks over Bethesda, Md., and Lugbill starts his workout, he is the living definition of intensity. Others paddle on a feeder canal that leads from the Potomac to the C & O Canal; Lugbill attacks it with the crazed spirit of a linebacker barely under control. Others avoid practice runs; Lugbill tries to get in extra ones, all year long—in the rain and sleet and snow and heat. Since September he has paddled 50 to 55 times a month, each session lasting an hour to an hour and a half. Says Robison, "I don't think he has any more raw talent than the rest of us. He just paddles more."
Nobody has more reason to be frustrated by competing against Lugbill than does Davey Hearn, 30. He is to Lugbill what Alydar was to Affirmed. When Lugbill won his four individual world titles, Hearn finished second each time. Hearn lost by four seconds in '79, .3 of a second in '81, .9 in '83, and 9.8 seconds in '87—all in races that take an average of 3� minutes. The only time Hearn won the title was in '85, when Lugbill was hampered by a severe injury to his right shoulder. "A big part of the fun is having a guy like Jon to try to beat," says Hearn philosophically. "It wouldn't be nearly as exciting if I knew I would win before each race. That's not racing."
Hearn is not the only American trailing closely in Lugbill's wake. Indeed, the U.S. may become the first team to sweep the first four places in the event at the worlds. In '87, the U.S. took the first three places, so it's no wonder spirit remains high on the U.S. team; each competitor knows that all he has to do to be world champ is beat Lugbill. "I'm not in awe of him," says his 21-year-old heir apparent, Jed Prentice of Bethesda. "He's not God," says Robison.
True. But Jon Lugbill is an extraordinary athlete with an incredible work ethic, one who doesn't seem to be bothered by the fact that most Americans have never heard of his sport. "Internal rewards are so much more fulfilling than external rewards," he says. "So what does it matter that I got good at a sport that nobody else cares about? I care."
Lugbill got involved in white water by accident. As a nine-year-old, Lugbill lived in Fairfax, a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., and he attended a river festival in West Virgina. There he saw a club race and fell in love. Two years later, in 1973, he entered an 11-mile race. The winner took about an hour to finish; Lugbill took two. Twice he fell out of his boat and cried as he struggled to get back in. "I have no idea why I liked it," he says.
By the time he started Oakton High in Vienna, Va., in 1975, he was arranging his academic courses around world championships. Then, in 1979, in Jonqui�re, Que., competing in a newly designed boat and performing startling new maneuvers in the water—notably pivot turns on stern and bow—he won the world title.
Then and there, he set what seemed an almost impossible goal: three world championships. He wrote a "3" on a piece of paper and put it in his underwear drawer so he would see it every morning. He told no one. And, of course, he won in '81 on a tiny, windy creek in Wales, and again in '83 on an Italian river that resembled a rock pile. He surpassed his goal in '87, soaring to his fourth individual title on a fast and powerful river in France. "When I have spare time," says Lugbill, "my mind thinks, How can I paddle better? It's not just what I find myself thinking about, it's what I want to think about. See, paddling isn't something I have to do. You should always do something because you like to do it, something you can devote yourself to and enjoy. It is not worth suffering to get to an end. The means must be enjoyable."
The dominance of U.S. racers began with the fortuitous coming together of Lugbill and Bill Endicott, the U.S. Olympic coach. Endicott, 43, has a master's in public administration from Harvard and for 10 years worked on Capitol Hill in various positions. In 1982 he quit his government job to pursue coaching full-time. "Going to Harvard and working for Congress wasn't as good as canoeing," he says. "Canoeing became reality for me, and the rest of my life became an annoying interruption."
At his competitive peak, Endicott finished ninth in 1971 in the world white-water two-man canoe championships. Still, while Lugbill is the heart of the U.S. team, Endicott is the soul. Lugbill admits that on horrible winter mornings he is tempted sometimes to skip practice. "Then I lie there, and I know that Bill will be down there, sitting by the same tree, regardless," says Lugbill. "So I go." Endicott says, "I think the same thing about Jon when I'm lying in bed. So I go."
Endicott became the volunteer coach of the U.S. team in 1977, and since then his racers have won 39 world medals, 20 of them gold. In addition to his four individual golds, Lugbill has won five in team competition. Says Endicott, "I feel like King Arthur, and by magic, I came to this canal. Then these knights, like Lugbill and Hearn, show up at the table. And they are magic. It's not real life."