Like Jansen, Karnaugh will find family tragedy just first of his losses

Ken Rosenthal

July 27, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- How will he react? How can he react? Speed skater Dan Jansen fell in his 500-meter specialty the day he learned his sister died of leukemia at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Four days later in the 1,000 meters, he fell again.

If possible, swimmer Ron Karnaugh might be in a deeper state of shock. His father didn't die after a lengthy illness Saturday night. He died after suffering an apparent heart attack at the Opening Ceremonies of the 25th Olympiad.

The story is so crushing it still doesn't seem real. Karnaugh actually spotted his parents and sister in the crowd of about 65,000 while parading into Olympic Stadium. He made eye contact. He smiled. He waved. Your basic once-in-a-lifetime Olympic moment.

Peter Karnaugh was 60, a trucking executive with a history of heart trouble. The family already has had its share of suffering; Ron's mother Jean can hardly speak because she had her larynx removed after contracting throat cancer in 1986.

Still, all that was behind them Saturday night. The town of Maplewood, N.J., had raised $27,000 so the family could attend the Olympics. And there was Ron, finally getting his big moment after narrowly failing to make the U.S. team in '88.

Their lives peaked.

Their lives crumbled.

Just like that.

How will he react? How can he react? Karnaugh indicated to the U.S. Olympic Committee that he will race on Friday. He's seeded second in the 200-meter individual medley. It's Jansen all over again, maybe worse. The race is still four days away. Plenty of time to think.

His mother and sister aren't going anywhere: Under Spanish law, his father's body must be retained 72 hours for an autopsy. U.S. swimming officials said Karnaugh will resume practicing today. Predictably, those who know him best insisted he would perform well.

"He'll regroup," said U.S. assistant coach Dick Shoulberg, who was Karnaugh's mentor at a Philadelphia swim club in 1986 and '87. "If he's left alone to do his thing and have his day in the sun, he'll be fine.

"But if he's hammered [by the media], it's unfair," Shoulberg continued, looking reporters directly in the eyes. "Look what happened to Jansen in '88. It was tragic. They need their privacy."

No argument there, but as with Jansen, Karnaugh's tragedy occurred at the one time the media is actually focused on his sport. It happens once every four years, and NBC no doubt will feature Karnaugh heavily in the coming days.

Two days ago, Karnaugh was an anonymous swimmer preparing to attend medical school. Now he's a tragic figure on a national scale. Who among us can't sympathize? As Shoulberg so aptly put it, "We're all just one phone call from having our lives changed."

How will he react? How can he react? Karnaugh returned to the Olympic Village Saturday night without knowing what had happened. USOC officials contacted his private coach, Terry Stoddard, and escorted his mother and sister to the village.

Stoddard awakened Karnaugh at 4:10 a.m., but did not break the news. Instead, he took Karnaugh to the area where his mother and sister were waiting. The entire family was then escorted to a hotel. No statements were released. No funeral arrangements were announced.

Under ordinary circumstances, Karnaugh would be one of the favorites Friday. He won the 200-meter IM at the Olympic trials, and is ranked No. 1 in the world. He touched the wall so hard at the trials, he needed his hand X-rayed. Teammate Shaun Jordan called him "one intense sucker."

Now, who knows?

It's bad enough losing a parent. It's unimaginable losing one like this.

Oddly enough, Karnaugh was one of the few swimmers to participate in the opening ceremonies. Most of the others had practices or races early the next day. But Karnaugh got to march with fellow swimmer Joel Thomas, his former teammate at Cal-Berkeley.

For that one brief moment when their eyes made contact, Karnaugh's father shared his joy. Someday that might be consolation to him, but probably not now. How will he react? How can he react? It's just him, his mother and sister. Their lives peaked. Their lives crumbled. That's all you need to know.

Like Jansen, Karnaugh will find family tragedy just first of his losses.

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