Bethesda's Lugbill is paddling after whitewater gold

BACK TO NATURE AND THE OLYMPICS

May 10, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Dickerson -- He trains in the shadow of a power plant, roaring through a hot tub of surging water with nothing more than a canoe, a paddle and a heart.

In a place where electricity is generated, Jon Lugbill is seeking to forge an Olympic gold medal.

He is a whitewater slalom canoe racer, the best of his generation, perhaps the best there ever was. Five times he has won the world championship in an event the world has rarely noticed.

But after a 20-year absence from the Olympics, the sport is being brought in from the forests, put on the great stage of the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

To get there, Lugbill must advance through the U.S. Olympic trials, to be held on the Savage River near Bloomington in Western Maryland, Saturday and Sunday. So he refines his obscure art in a northwestern corner of Montgomery County, dotted with farms and executive homes that lie by the Potomac River.

The spring day is bright and brittle. Puffs of white smoke rise like cotton clouds from the tallest of three stacks of Potomac Electric. Turbines hum. Water from the Potomac, drawn in to cool the generated steam, pours back to the river through a concrete canal.

It is in this canal where Lugbill transforms himself from a shy environmentalist into a raging bull. The course is 350 meters from start to finish. Twenty-five slalom gates are suspended from wires. Buried in the concrete bed are 75 17-ton gum-ball-shaped concrete mounds that can scratch or even tear apart Lugbill's 22-pound fiberglass and Kevlar canoe.

Four other paddlers are in the water. Lugbill's golden retriever Jasper watches from the bank, darting through the stand of maples and sycamores.

"Imagine being on a people mover and trying to hit a takeoff board every few seconds," he says. "You have to hit the exact point every time. It's not just a question of who is the strongest. This sport requires power in a given time in a given way."

Lugbill kneels and covers the canoe's cockpit with a rubber spray skirt that circles his waist. He and the boat are now one, an engine connected to a chassis. One moment, he bolts downstream. The next, he is pivoting and straining, paddling furiously while beating upstream. He glides through the gates. He avoids the gum balls.

After a two-minute ride, Lugbill reaches the bank. Beads of water drip from his helmet, his arms are wet and he is smiling.

A5 "Awesome," he says. "It's like a roller coaster."

This is a back-to-nature sport. Nothing fancy. The dress is casual. Barefoot even. Just men and women in boats trying to tame raging water. They go from river to river, traveling the world in search of the perfect ride.

"It's a little like surfing," said Cathy Hearn, the 1979 women's kayak world champion. "You have to migrate where the water is."

They are mostly nomads in boats, moving from Tennessee to Massachusetts to Washington to France to Spain and back again. They take jobs on the fly, share floor space in each other's rented rooms, camp out in woods near the rivers. Their world championship appears to be nothing more than a post-baby boom Boy Scout Jamboree.

But Lugbill, 30, is different. He has roots. Lives in Bethesda with ,, his wife Gillian and 18-month-old daughter Kelly. Works as an environmental planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Drives a 1988 Honda Civic that is just big enough to accommodate himself, five paddles, two equipment bags, one dog, one child seat and one canoe strapped to the roof.

He is 5 feet 8, 175 pounds. An average guy, until you look closer, and see forearms that could come out of a Popeye cartoon. He ponders every question, measuring answers with the same careful cadence he brings to paddling.

"I consider training for the Olympics an opportunity of a lifetime," he said. "I'm doing what I love. My God, this is great. I'm not delaying life. I still have one."

In whitewater slalom racing, Lugbill is close to being a living legend. He began paddling as an 11-year-old with his two older brothers, and three years later, in 1975, raced in his first world championships in Yugoslavia. Quickly, the prodigy became a star. He won individual world titles in 1979, 1981, 1983, 1987 and 1989, each time beating his training partner and perennial silver medalist, David Hearn. He also earned seven gold medals in team races.

"When I first started this sport, it was just an after-school activity," he said. "Then it grew into something. It was almost fanatical."

Lugbill became engrossed in canoe design, building and refining his boats. He also developed a new, lighter helmet, and helped create curved paddles. This might be arcane stuff in a car-crazed country, but, in the water, Lugbill was helping revolutionize a sport, turning rivers into raceways.

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