ATHENS -- To overcome gravity and hydraulics, successful whitewater paddlers combine the speed reading of Evelyn Wood, the sight reading of Liberace and the muscle of Barry Bonds.
The U.S. canoe pairs team of Joe Jacobi and Matt Taylor and kayakers Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons passed the first of their Olympic literacy and strength tests yesterday to advance to today's semifinal competition.
An estimated 8,000 spectators turned the seacoast venue into an international beach party. Under a brilliant blue sky, they sang and boogied to oldies and applauded both the front-runners and those struggling to master the churning froth.
The "Paddling Papas" -- Jacobi, a pairs gold medalist in 1992, and Taylor, a two-time Olympian -- finished the two qualifying heats in sixth place out of 12 boats. Their combined time put them 22.39 seconds behind the leaders, Slovakian twins Pavol and Peter Hochschorner, the 2000 gold medalists.
Paddlers get plenty of practice on the course in the weeks and months before the Olympics, but there are no practice runs after the slalom gates are set before competition, so paddlers must read the rapids on the fly. The unexpected almost doomed Jacobi and Taylor just seconds from the finish line on their first run.
"We came close to flipping. That was a little scary," Taylor said. "The first run is what we call the learning run. You don't want to make it a learning run, but we had to. We'd never been on this gate combination before."
Despite the glitch, the pair tied for ninth.
On the second run, they made some adjustments, and Jacobi, in the stern, showed some patience setting up for the gates.
"Matt's a big diesel engine up in the front," said Jacobi, a Bethesda native. "You still have to shift the gears properly and push in the clutch at the right time. I timed those things better the second time and gave Matt more room to paddle. [I] let him do his thing and you saw the difference. The boat was really flying on the water out there."
They finished the second run in fourth.
"It's a choreographed thing," Taylor said. "You're not running. You're placing your stroke. You're putting your knees in a certain place ... then our instincts take over. We use our brains and our brawn."
Just 2.15 seconds separate boats 2 through 5. The Hochschorner brothers hold a 12.37-second lead over the British pair of Stuart Bowman and Nicholas Smith, which finished second in both heats. Given the consistency of the Slovakians, a gold medal is all but assured.
Jacobi, who was 22 when he won the gold, had nothing but praise for the venue, completed in March, and the competition.
"It's much different from Barcelona," he said. "It's faster, stronger, bigger and more challenging, but in the end, it's more fun. The competitive field is much stronger than Barcelona."
Although there has been criticism of indifference and low attendance at these Summer Games, that wasn't the case with the whitewater crowd.
Spectators waved the flags of each other's nations and cheered for Benjamin Kudjow Thomas Boukpeti, one of three athletes representing Togo and the only African paddler competing on the whitewater course.
When Alexandros Dimitriou floundered in his first race and seemed about to swamp, the venue disc jockey played a Greek tune and the spectators clapped him through the final half-dozen gates.
"It's a festival," Jacobi said. "People are out here having fun."
Heyl and Parsons, who train at the Bethesda Center for Excellence, made the cut from 25 boats to 20.
Bobbing and weaving under and around gates, Parsons finished 12th and 19th to rank 14th overall. He is 11.42 seconds behind the leader, Michael Kurt of Switzerland.
Heyl had a clean first run and finished in seventh place, 4.43 seconds back. In the second heat, a two-second penalty at the penultimate gate kept him from posting the second-fastest time. He is 5.50 seconds behind Kurt.
"It was a good run except for that one touch, which bothers me because that's my main focus," Heyl said. "I've got to push it a little more, just a little bit. I'm going to paddle the way I know how to paddle."
Campbell Walsh of Great Britain, ranked No. 2 in the world, is in second place, 2.19 seconds behind the leader. Germany's Thomas Schmidt, the 2000 gold medalist, is in third, 3.85 seconds back.