SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
July 05, 1976
Steve Kelly has gone through fire (with Ladder Company 36) and ice and sunny lagoons, striving to make the Olympics, though his chances in Montreal remain nil
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July 05, 1976

Bronx Boy Makes Good

Steve Kelly has gone through fire (with Ladder Company 36) and ice and sunny lagoons, striving to make the Olympics, though his chances in Montreal remain nil

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The vast majority of people in the world were not aware of it, but Stephen P. Kelly, the kayaker from the New York City borough of the Bronx, was a teammate of Mark Spitz at the 1972 Olympic Games. Mark Spitz was not aware of this either. Kelly recalls his relationship with Spitz in Munich: "I saw him around the Village. I never met him or shook hands with him or anything. That's not unusual. Maybe only one out of every 50 or 60 people in an Olympics wins a gold medal. They're set apart from the rest of us. They're almost like another race. Take a look at the official Olympic yearbook. It lists every single member of every single team. It has a picture of everyone. And you can see there how many failed to meet the qualifying height or lost out in the first heat. People never heard of them. I feel bad about that. But 90% or 95% of everyone in the Olympics is like that."

In Munich, Steve Kelly finished deep among the 95% no one ever heard of. Nevertheless, he was a bona fide world-class Olympic competitor then and he will be again in Montreal this month. This is an honorable achievement, a pinnacle reached by an infinitesimal portion of the world's billions.

Since the Games were reborn in a splurge of idealism and hope 80 years ago, they have been racked and nearly ruined by some of the 20th century's nastier "isms"—cynicism, chauvinism, professionalism, totalitarianism. But if the Olympics as an institution falters, the individual Olympian seems somehow to have transcended the trouble. Whether one is a pampered hero or an anonymous out-of-work New York City fireman like Steve Kelly, it is no cheap or simple thing to become an Olympian—even an Olympian who has no chance to win a gold medal. Perhaps especially an Olympian who has no chance. It demands commitment, it demands sacrifice.

It was the first week in December. There were 20 shopping days until Christmas 1975, 225 days until the Olympics 1976. Steve Kelly sat at the counter in a Manhattan coffee shop at the intersection of Broadway and Dyckman Street. He was, at that moment, the U.S. singles kayak champion. Few people were aware of this; certainly no one in the coffee shop recognized him. He was tall, rangy, a bit shabby in old jeans, old Adidas shoes, a surplus-store parka and a slightly soiled white hat which, he explained, was the official rain hat of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. He had a thick beard the color of old copper. His pale skin seemed to have lost its little boy's freckles only recently, the light blue eyes were mischievous, the smile was quick—altogether he gave the impression of an impish altar boy wearing false whiskers.

Steve Kelly was a serious man, however, living a serious life. He was 24 with a son who was two. He had a wife who was pregnant. And he had no permanent employment, only a temporary job driving a delivery truck for a company that sold soft-drink syrup to soda fountains. He was paid $5 an hour. Five months before, Kelly had been laid off by the Fire Department, a victim of the financial crisis that was gripping New York. His job at Ladder Company 36 had paid $11,000 a year. Though he had a degree in criminal justice from John Jay College (class of '72), he had become a fireman largely because he passed a civil service exam that made him eligible to be a fireman; it was not the triumphant fruition of a small boy's dreams.

"My mom was always reading civil service ads in the paper," Kelly said. "She got me to go take the Fire Department exam. I passed, so I took the job. It made her happy. She has that big thing Irish mothers have about getting their sons into something secure—like working for the city."

But not much was secure anymore. "When I was laid off," Steve Kelly said, "I panicked. I'd worry, worry, worry. I'd ask myself, 'What am I gonna do? How can I keep training? What am I gonna do?!' It's been a few months now. I'm used to it. I say to hell with worrying. I'm training for the Olympics. We'll get by. Maybe it's all for the best. There's no way you can hold a full-time job and train for the Olympics. Training is full time now. You have to. The Europeans do it. We have to."

He rose from the stool and left the coffee shop. The December sky was already black although it was only five o'clock in the afternoon. It was damp, blustery, very cold. The intersection of Broadway and Dyckman was brilliantly lit, fiercely noisy. Traffic poured along Broadway, a howling stream of headlights. The papers were full of news about bankruptcy, about the inevitable onrushing deterioration of life in New York City. Kelly climbed into his car and drove west down Dyckman toward the Hudson River, away from the bad news.

A couple of blocks along, beneath a huge concrete arch that held up the Henry Hudson Parkway 80 feet above, he turned left onto a dark rutted road. His headlights shone on puddles of ice in the ruts. Weeds grew between the tire tracks. He drove slowly along the black wilds of the river shore. The Hudson was about a mile wide here. Upriver the tiny lights of a tugboat glided along its surface. Downriver loomed the George Washington Bridge. Its looping necklaces of lights reached across to New Jersey so gracefully that it was hard to believe the bridge had been conceived and built by men.

A few hundred yards down the road, Kelly parked at a small, gray two-story building. This was the Inwood Canoe Club. He unlocked a heavy wooden door and out of the blackness came a small brown dog with an oddly bent ear. Kelly said his name was Hudson and explained that the dog had been tossed into the river by someone on a Circle Line excursion boat a few years before. Club members had paddled out and rescued the animal and he had lived there ever since. "He's supposed to be our watchdog," said Kelly, "but if someone gives him food, he doesn't mind if they break in. Every month or so I come down here and find the door swinging. There's nothing much to steal. We wouldn't think of keeping trophies here."

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