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PADDLING The Straight And Narrow
Douglas S. Looney
June 19, 1989
Jon Lugbill, the undisputed king of white-water canoeing, is a throwback to a time when sports heroes were larger than life
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June 19, 1989

Paddling The Straight And Narrow

Jon Lugbill, the undisputed king of white-water canoeing, is a throwback to a time when sports heroes were larger than life

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Jon Lugbill is perched on a rock formation some 150 feet above the roaring Potomac at Great Falls, Va., after winning yet another race. Incredible Jon Lugbill. Unbelievable Jon Lugbill. From his perch, he looks down on everyone else. That figures. He almost always has. For Lugbill has won four of the last five world white-water single canoe slalom titles and is the prohibitive favorite to win his fifth, on June 24 on Maryland's Savage River. So dominant is Lugbill that he already has the inside track on the gold medal at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, where white-water canoeing will make its return as a medal sport after a 20-year hiatus.

Lugbill, 28, who was a child prodigy (he made his first world team when he was 13), is a legend among his fellow canoeists because no male racer in the history of the sport has won more than three individual world titles. But most impressive of all, in a time when heroes are scarce, Jon Lugbill is a real red, white and blue champion.

The race Lugbill had won was a low-key tuneup for the worlds over a stretch of the Potomac that looks like something on a postcard but has rapids so deceptive the National Park Service reports an average of seven drownings there every year. Lugbill nonchalantly wiggles his toes against the rocks and ponders his sport. "I'm not in this to win world championships," he says. "I'm in it because I love it. If I don't win the worlds, if I'm not in the Olympics, that doesn't matter. What's most important is that I gave it a good shot, raised my standards, raised my level." Goodness, he's even a sportsman.

Yet, Lugbill, the all-American boy who believes in love and marriage and hard work and his dog, has done more than simply raise his standards, and thus the sport's. Jamie McEwan, of Lakeville, Conn., who won a bronze medal in the single slalom in the '72 Olympics, says, "It's not all the wins that Jon has had that impress me but the fact that he created the sport."

McEwan is not guilty of hyperbole. Not long after Lugbill started competing internationally, in 1972, he became convinced that the sport didn't quite measure up. "I remember saying all the time, 'No, this is stupid; no, this isn't right; no, no, no,' " Lugbill recalls.

Europeans had dominated the slalom since the world championships commenced, in 1949, and Lugbill didn't understand why that had to be. So he changed it, winning his first world title in 1979 at age 18. He didn't think much of the way the canoes were designed, so he changed that too, creating, with several friends, the more streamlined boat now used by everyone, including the Europeans.

He also didn't think much of the conventional wisdom that said a competitor should work on precision first and speed later. To this day, fast is never fast enough for Lugbill. And he is not afraid to try almost anything, including acrobatics, to produce faster times.

White-water racing demands a high degree of speed and precision because of the unpredictable nature of the 600-meter course. To win you have to maneuver your boat successfully through 25 gates, at least six of which are positioned upstream. If you miss or touch a gate, penalty time is added to your score.

Lugbill has become the consummate artist of this game, painting masterpieces on the river while others are still doing connect-the-dots drawings. He may, in fact, be too good at what he does. The big issue that will probably be decided on the Savage in the single slalom—one of eight canoeing and kayaking events to be raced by about 600 competitors from 30 nations—is who is second-best. Teammate Bob Robison, who grew up with Lugbill in Fairfax, Va., says, "Jon might—might—get beat, but it won't be by anybody better."

When East Germany's Manfred Schubert won the worlds in '57, '61 and '63, his record of three individual titles looked as if it would stand forever. But sometimes forever isn't a very long time. Trying to explain his success, Lugbill says, "I know what it takes to win, and I see others not doing it."

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