The first of world champion canoeist Jon Lugbill's two slalom runs down the tumultuous Savage River in western Maryland last Saturday was brilliant. While others fought their way through the unforgiving rapids and 25 gates for 600 meters, Lugbill glided. While others made mistakes in judgment. Lugbill negotiated each gate flawlessly. Throughout the World Whitewater Championships, which were being held in the U.S. for the first time in the sport's 40-year history, U.S. coach Bill Endicott called Lugbill "the best paddler of the century." But Endicott, a man who never uses two superlatives when three will do, is often guilty of hyperbole, so please forgive him.
Still, as thousands of spectators watching cheered lustily, Lugbill, 28, of Bethesda, Md., blazed to a first-run time of 212.13 seconds. That gave him a whopping 12.57-second lead over Davey Hearn, also of Bethesda, who had the second fastest first run. The only solace Hearn and the 36 other competitors had in the face of Lugbill's stunning first strike was that they didn't drown and that nobody laughed in their faces.
Then came Lugbill's second run, which made the first seem like a pleasure cruise. This time he was truly poetry in a life jacket, making all those eddy turns and peel outs with power on the upstream gates and grace on the downstream ones. Later he admitted, "I'm better than I have ever been by a lot."
That second run should remain the standard by which others will be measured for years to come. His time of 205.04 seconds was 11.97 better than Hearn's second-place effort. (The best of two runs count; the penalty for hitting a gate is five seconds and missing, 50 seconds.) And canoeing is a sport in which a second is a significant margin. At the 1981 worlds, for example, Lugbill beat Hearn by a mere .3 of a second.
By now Hearn is getting used to being second banana. Last week was the fifth time in the last six worlds that he has been runner-up to Lugbill. The only time the order was reversed was in '85, when Lugbill injured his right shoulder. "I had good, solid runs, and I wasn't even close to being good enough to win," said Hearn on Saturday. "But I was satisfied. Jon is just awesome."
These worlds weren't a race; they were a coronation. And like most kings, Lugbill can reign as long as he wants, which means he'll be an odds-on favorite to win his sixth world championship in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, in 1991. The same goes for the 1992 Olympics, in which white-water slalom will be a medal sport for the first time since '72. On Saturday, France's Thierry Humeau came in third, 21.48 seconds behind Lugbill. When asked what he thought of Lugbill, Humeau said, "Too good."
Lugbill doesn't know how he got to be so good. Talent and hard work have something to do with it, of course, but there's more to it than that. At 6:15 a.m. on Saturday, when his dog, Jasper, awakened him, Lugbill went through the race in his mind. When he does this, his concentration is so intense that his heart beats at race speed.
"If I ever think about failing, I tell myself to quit it," said Lugbill on Saturday evening. "Even today, I told myself, I can win this thing. Then I thought, But I could also flip. Then I said, Stop it. What's wrong with you?"
Obviously nothing—just as nothing was wrong with him on Sunday, when he led Hearn and Jed Prentice to an easy win over France and Yugoslavia, which were second and third, respectively, in the team competition. Dana Chladek, another Bethesda resident, was favored to win the women's single kayaking after world champion Liz Sharman of England withdrew with a back injury. But the pressure got to Chladek, and she finished second, 4.18 seconds behind France's Myriam Jerusalmi. Endicott had high hopes that Richard Weiss of State College, Pa., would finish among the top three in the men's single kayaking, but he placed fifth, 5.16 seconds behind England's Richard Fox, who won his fourth world title. In the two-man canoe competition, Jamie McEwan, a bronze medalist in the '72 Olympics, and his partner, Leek Haller, ended up fourth.
Nothing, however, could diminish Lugbill's lights-out performance. And the fact that he's such a bright guy—he gave an interview in German to a West German reporter—and that his wife, Gill, was his high school sweetheart and that his dog is devoted adds to his appeal. This guy clearly belongs on a Wheaties box—oops, he has already appeared there. Lugbill said, "This feels awful good." Crowns usually do.