Kelly was exultant. "It was perfect!" he said. "Just what we planned to do. We held next to them through the first half, then our stamina beat 'em. God, that felt great!" The glow of competition was almost like a halo over his head. "Oh, my God, what a feeling!"
The baby was born on May 26, two weeks late. He was a big 10 pounds 14 ounces, and they named him Peter Joshua. Kelly was in New York at the birth. But, just before Memorial Day, 48 days to the Games, he was gone again. He flew to Cambridge, Ohio, where the Olympic Trials for the K-4s were to be held June 5. For a week the Kelly K-4 crew continued its high-pitched training, and then came race day, dark and rainy. There were five boats in the two-heat 1,000-meter trials and Kelly was totally confident. Rightly so. His kayak won both races by an impressive two seconds. Steve Kelly was an Olympian again.
It had cost him almost a year of his time, more than $2,000 of his small savings, immeasurable amounts of pain and fatigue. His condition was superb, his chest broad, his arms hard. He could paddle at what for most would be exhausting speed and scarcely breathe hard. His body was about as close to a machine as human persistence could make it. He had labored to make it almost immune to breakdown, practically devoid of frailty.
The obvious question was—why do it? Why sacrifice so much? Steve Kelly said, "People who have never been in the Olympics try to make patriotism a motive, but that isn't very effective. It appeals to Little Leaguers, I suppose. Most people just compete as individuals. That's best. I suppose some guys like Mark Spitz might be motivated by all the money they'll make with their gold medals, but that sure doesn't apply to me—either the money or the gold. So when someone asks me why I do this, spend my own money and let a career go, I can't think of anything to say except that I want to compete against the best athletes in the world. Because that means that I'm one of the best athletes in the world. I'm proud of that."
The founder of the modern Olympics was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a melancholy 19th-century visionary. He spent the last years of his life in Lausanne, Switzerland, nearly penniless, rowing in circles on Lake Geneva. He had come to be bitterly disappointed in the Games. Opportunism and politics had ruined his dream.
It was de Coubertin who said, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."
Not many Olympians meet the standard of true amateurism anymore. Those who do are the purest Olympians, and they almost always perform in near-perfect anonymity because they almost always train without the benefit of government support, athletic scholarships or proper facilities. Thus they almost never stand in the winner's spotlight. If he were alive today, the baron would admire Steve Kelly very much indeed.