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With a few notable exceptions, American Presidents have not been gung-ho sportsmen while in office. In more recent memory, Calvin Coolidge waded trout streams, although rather improbably attired in a high starched collar; Ike was a demon golfer; John Kennedy was a dedicated sailor and a touch-football player of note—exercising his Presidential prerogative, he usually was the quarterback; and Gerald Ford stem-turned doggedly down the ski slopes.
In a quiet and inconspicuous way, Jimmy Carter is proving to be a bit of an all-round sportsman in his own right. Although he was a member of the Naval Academy's plebe cross-country team 35 years ago, winning his class numerals, he didn't run again until about two months ago, when he started jogging from two to four miles almost every day. Carter is not alone out there, of course; it has been estimated that 25 million Americans have become joggers recently. You would think they were all there on the White House grounds when the President trots out for his daily workout, so abundant are the Secret Service agents who shadow him from Ionic pillar to Southwest Gate post. So much for the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
Carter is 54 and slightly stooped, but appears remarkably fit and trim at 5'9�", 155 pounds. "I never have been a really good athlete," Carter said, in a recent interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in the Oval Office, "but I stay in good shape, watch my weight and take a lot of exercise. I really believe that other than the solitude of hunting and fishing, the most beneficial sport to me is running. It's not time-consuming. I can go out and run, for me, a fairly fast two miles in about 15 minutes, or run three miles in 25 minutes, or take a slower pace—10 minutes to a mile—and run seven miles. Then I can come back in and go back to work shortly.
"I would say, during my first 20 or 21 months up here I probably played tennis more than any other single thing. I still play two or three times a week when it's not too cold, but I run almost every day."
Carter created a mild stir among his staff early in his Administration by personally attending to the schedule of the White House tennis court, something his aides now say he did only to avoid embarrassing staff members who might be on the court when the President showed up for a quick set with, say, Hamilton Jordan or Zbigniew Brzezinski. As a rule, Carter prefers to play doubles; he is a cutthroat player at the net and dislikes to lose. "I generally pick partners so that I can win about half the time," he said. "Without criticizing my partners, I would have to say that their ability is not outstanding." And he laughed.
Carter's interest in tennis dates back to his boyhood on the family farm in Archery, Ga. His father was such an avid player that he took the unusual step—for those times and that place—of building a tennis court right next to the Carter home. It was during that same period that young Jimmy Carter learned to hunt and to fish, spending summer nights on the banks of the Choctawhatchee and Kinchafoonee creeks, "catching and cooking catfish and eels when the water was rising from heavy rains," according to his autobiography Why Not the Best?
"In 1972 when I was Governor I began fly-fishing," Carter recalled in the Oval Office, "and now I find that is by far the most enjoyable way to fish. However, at home we have a small pond where we generally fish with just a cane pole. Sometimes we do bait casting, with black worms, fishing the bottom for bass. It used to be that I could just pick up a fishing pole and go down to the creek—I have a couple of canoes—where I could go fishing, and it was no big deal. But now you have the Secret Service and the news people tagging along, just a whole entourage when you go." Carter reflected on this for a moment, as if recollecting the tranquil hours he spent on the water.
"But the main sport that I liked," he said, brightening, "perhaps more than any other, while I was Governor, was white-water canoeing and kayaking. I haven't been able to do that since I've been President. [The President obviously discounted August's rubber-raft expedition down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The water was certainly roiling in spots, but the Carters were more passengers than white-water adventurers.] When I left the governorship I traded my kayak in on a second canoe, but kayaking was one sport I really liked. My wife did also; on white water I don't think I ever went down a river in a canoe that she didn't go. She never did go in the kayak, but she's a better fisherman than I am. She has her own fly-fishing outfit."
The President also enjoys skeet shooting: indeed, he has been something of a marksman since the day he shot his sister Gloria in the rear end with a BB gun for throwing a wrench at him. "I've always liked hunting," Carter said. "Before I was elected Governor I had bird dogs of my own and went hunting for quail a good bit. That has been restricted pretty much, but I still go hunting several times a year when I'm at home on my own farm."
One of the sports Carter has had to give up since he came to Washington is basketball; the White House doesn't have a court of its own. "We had a basketball goal and a little place just outside the garage area of the Governor's Mansion," said Carter. "We played a good bit. My son Jack was a good basketball player." Carter himself was a forward on the varsity basketball team at Plains High School and went on to play intramural ball at Georgia Southwestern, a junior college that had no intercollegiate sports program. "As a matter of fact," he said, "without bragging, I made the all-star team that year. I was fast, but I was small for my age. About the only time I was ever successful in basketball was when we ran a fast break.