Whitewater warrior

Kayaking: Craig Law decided paddling was too much in his blood not to give the Olympics one last try, so, at 40, he'll dip his twin-bladed oar this weekend.

April 05, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Maybe you've seen him chugging along the streets of Catonsville. Or perhaps you've noticed him paddling furiously on the Patapsco.

Craig Law hopes the next time you see him he will be in Sydney, wearing the red, white and blue of the U.S. Olympic team.

To make it to Australia, the Baltimore County resident will have to beat as many as 45 other competitors this weekend at the Olympic trials in whitewater slalom kayaking on Tennessee's Ocoee River.

Law is a geezer on a mission, battling paddlers half his age.

"At age 40, this is it. This is the twilight. This is my last big hurrah," he said. "I know I won't be doing this at 44."

Running a whitewater course has been likened to skiing in an avalanche, with a paddler attempting to impose his will on churning water that has enough force to snap his boat in two.

It takes lightning reflexes and pinpoint paddling accuracy to push a boat through a course about the length of three football fields studded with about 25 gates hung above the water. Kayakers and canoers need to thread a course beneath the gates without coming into contact with them. About one-quarter of the gates must be negotiated while fighting upstream.

Penalty points assessed for missing a gate by going through the wrong way, going through out of sequence or upside down spell doom for any run.

By Sunday afternoon, Law will know if he has secured one of four spots on the national team in the K-1, or single kayak, class.

A long shot? Sure, said Law. But this is not the first time he has raised himself to world-class level.

The Catonsville resident took to whitewater as a 14-year-old at a Montgomery County day camp run by 1973 national kayak champion Tom McEwan.

"He sent me down rivers until I was scared for my life," said Law, laughing.

McEwan, owner of Calleva Paddling in Germantown, remembers Law as a camper who attained the coveted "red shirt" for his tenacity.

"He definitely came up in the hard-core school of paddling in any circumstances," McEwan said. "He was always pushing his limits."

It helped that Law went to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda with two friends who became world-class paddlers -- Cathy and David Hearn.

"We got physical education credit for our workouts. We were training four hours a day and all we had to do was turn in our training logs," Law said.

He started paddling with the U.S. team when he was 16 and traveled the world. "That was pretty much my life," he recalled.

But then he met the woman who would become his wife, Rosemary, and they started a family.

"When I retired, it was the right thing to do," he said. "My sons needed to have their dad around."

Sherman, now 22; Shawn, 20, and Christopher, 13, got used to having Law cheer their accomplishments. Law became chief executive officer of a network of community health centers for the uninsured and underinsured.

The competitive fires remained banked until 1992, when the Olympics restored the whitewater events to the Summer Games after a 20-year absence. Law watched the Barcelona Games on TV.

"I was retired watching those who hadn't retired win medals. I said to myself, `Hey, that's not fair,' " he said.

With the backing of his wife and sons, Law threw himself into the sport he missed.

The comeback was not to be. He missed qualifying for the 1996 Olympic trials by two seconds.

Instead of quitting, Law pushed on, paddling the Patapsco and C&O Canal weekdays and running the world-renowned course at the Pepco Power Plant in Dickerson on weekends. He asked Oliver Fix, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, to be his coach.

Said McEwan: "It's very hard to do what he's doing. With a family and a job, you always have an excuse to miss a workout. The fact that he has accomplished what he has to become a contender really says something about his makeup."

Law's effort to make the trials this year started almost the way 1996 ended. The qualifier in North Carolina concluded with Law one second too slow.

"I remember staring at the board and saying, `I can't believe it.' But four years later, I was more ornery, more determined," he said.

The second chance was to have been on the San Marcos River in Texas. But drought forced the competition to an artificial course at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park in Arlington.

Law said his first run was "abysmal. I was ticked off."

But he put his anger to good use. "I threw my lightning bolt down the course. They could have put [the course] in a puddle in the parking lot and I would have won," he says.

His second run was six seconds quicker, more than good enough to qualify for the Olympic trials.

Just to confirm that Texas wasn't a fluke, Law competed in the third qualifier in Northern California last month. He finished fourth the first day and second the second day.

"I'm definitely where I need to be," he said.

The course on the Ocoee was the site of the 1996 Olympics slalom races. Law calls it "a blind paddle. When you're in the river, you can't see what's coming up next."

After practicing tomorrow, each paddler will get two runs a day starting Friday. The two runs and any penalty points are totaled for a combined score each day. At the end of the trials, judges throw out each paddler's worst day, and the four with the fewest points win.

McEwan said experience will help Law "react well to unplanned things, to a course that's moving and changing."

He won't be the only one fighting Father Time this weekend. The Hearns, two-time Olympians David, 40, in the single canoe class and Cathy, 42, in the women's kayak division, will be competing.

While Law acknowledges that conventional wisdom favors the men in their 20s, he is conceding nothing: "In my mind, nobody is going to Sydney until I finish my runs."

Pub Date: 4/05/00

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