Want to know what a five-ringed seal of Olympic approval can do for a sport and its competitors?
Meet Dave Curran.
A year ago, he had a car, a condo and a career in sales. Now, he is a self-described whitewater "kayak bum." He drives from river to river in a pickup truck. He shares rug space with furniture and pets in homes of friends. He dips into a dwindling savings account to pay for meals.
L At 34, he is living out a fantasy, courtesy of the Olympics.
"Before, this was just a nut and berry sport," said Curran, a native of Doylestown, Pa. "Now, it has some clout because of the Olympics. I flew down to Costa Rica last winter, and I mentioned the O-word. My boat got put on the plane for free and I got upgraded to first class."
Tomorrow, Curran and 100 other racers will open the two-day U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Whitewater Slalom Racing on the Savage River near Bloomington in western Maryland. After a 20-year absence fromthe Olympics, the sport is returning to the Barcelona Games this summer. At stake at the trials are 15
berths, and for many, a first and last chance to achieve Olympic glory.
"A lot of us are coming out from underneath the rocks," Curran said.
The sport has its stars, ranging from five-time world canoe champion Jon Lugbill to 1972 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie McEwan to Cathy Hearn, the first American to win a women's kayak world title in 1979. For them, the trials present an opportunity to advance to a larger arena, the artificial whitewater course in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain.
"For most people in this sport, the Olympics have been that one elusive goal," Hearn said. "People in this sport are taking this more serious, training harder. Everything is higher profile. Every time you used to explain to someone you were on a U.S. national team, but it wasn't the Olympic team, it was hard to explain. But now, we don't have to explain things."
Ever since its one Olympic appearance at the 1972 Games in Munich, whitewater slalom has been playing mostly to the trees, shunted to the wild rivers in European and North American forests. But in Spain, the paddlers will be part of the biggest
television show on earth, displaying their talents in a town nestled in the Pyrenees.
On the surface, the Olympic designation hasn't changed the nature of a discipline practiced by only 550 paddlers nationwide. This is the New Age sport of the Games, one in which the racers train and workpart-time, traveling the world in search of the perfect wave.
"No one really has a home," Hearn said. "We just have places where we drop our bags."
But the sport is now in the U.S. Olympic Committee family, with an office and full-time paid staff in Indianapolis. And top athletes and coaches receive stipends, which enable them to pay off a few long-standing debts.
"The Olympics legitimizes us," said Kirsten Brown-Fleshman, a kayaker with a degree from MIT. "My job? You're looking at it."
Four years ago, Bob Robison, a 1979 world bronze medalist in single canoe, was winding down his paddling career and revving up his business career in computer software. But when he heard whitewater slalom was coming back to the Olympics, he couldn't resist the lure. He didn't stop working. But he didn't stop paddling, either.
"We've been going to World Championships all these years, but no one noticed," he said. "The public just leeches on to the Olympics, as if it's the only sporting event outside the Super Bowl. Hey, I read an article about the Olympics and I still have this god-like feeling about it. I just get goose bumps."
For Curran, the Olympics are a ticket to a dream, or one last chance to play Peter Pan on a river. Recently, after a breathless practice run down the artificial course at the Potomac Electric plant in Dickerson, Curran emerged from the water and said: "This is just like being at an amusement park. Like going on the Cyclone. What's not to like?"
Curran's chances of winning one of three spots in men's kayak, are, to be polite, bleak. He hasn't qualified for a national team lTC since 1980, and before his comeback, hadn't raced full-time since 1983.
"Lots of people, beginning with my parents, told me I was nuts," Curran said. "But I didn't like what I was doing. I had to try this. I was getting soft in the middle. I had a belly on me and I was one big blob. Now, at least I have a chest."
He also has a plan for a new career.
"Labor Day weekend I'm selling every kayak I own," he said. "I'm buying some Ping golf clubs."
Olympic trials for whitewater slalom racing
Where: Savage River, near Bloomington in Garrett County
When: Tomorrow-Sunday, 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10 available through TicketMaster (children under 12 free). Information, call (800) 695-4221 or (301) 387-6666.
Parking: Designated areas only, with spectators arriving on the site via shuttle bus.
At stake: Three Olympic berths each in women's single kayak and men's single kayak, single canoe and double canoe. First- and second-place finishers in tomorrow's races and winners of Sunday's races receive Olympic berths.
Favorites: Dana Chladek (women's single kayak); Rich Weiss (men's single kayak); Jon Lugbill (men's single canoe); Lecky Haller-Jamie McEwan (men's double canoe).
Primer: Competitors careen down a raging river, negotiating a 350-meter course that includes 25 gates, approximately eight entered going upstream. There is a five-second penalty for hitting a gate -- two poles suspended above water by wires -- and a 50-second penalty for missing a gate.
Equipment: Competitors wear helmets, buoyancy vests and spray skirts that cover the cockpits of the boats. In kayaks, competitors sit with legs extended to foot braces and use double-bladed paddles. In canoes, competitors kneel and use single-bladed paddles.