washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Leagues and Sports > Olympics > 2004 > Sport-by-Sport > Canoe/Kayak

For Jacobi, One Last Splash

Whitewater Legend, Bethesda Native, Bids Games Farewell

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page D09

ATHENS, Aug. 20 -- To a deafening soundtrack of rushing rapids and rousing cheers, a distinguished Olympic career came to an end at the Helliniko Olympic Canoe and Kayak Center Friday. But Joe Jacobi's imprint on his sport will endure for years.

Jacobi and partner Matt Taylor finished eighth in the semifinals of the two-man canoe, just missing the cut for the finals. Yet both lingered for hours afterward at the whitewater complex -- one of the few sold-out and truly electric venues at these poorly attended Games -- to cheer their younger teammates and longtime European rivals while soaking up their final Olympics with the family members who had come to Greece to share it with them.


Slovakia's Peter Horchschorner, left, and brother Pavol negotiate a gate on their way to a gold medal in the pairs canoe slalom. (Toby Melville - Reuters)

_____Correction_____
In an Aug. 21 Sports article, two-man canoe gold medalists Pavol and Peter Hochschorner were identified as Slovenian. They are Slovakian.



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What Jacobi witnessed on this sun-drenched morning was Bethesda's Scott Parsons, 25, advancing to the finals of the single kayak and finishing sixth. He also saw Brett Heyl, 22, a George Washington undergraduate, fall short of the K-1 finals (he finished 15th in his semifinal run) and vow to come back stronger and wiser for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

To no one's surprise, the two-man canoe medals were swept by Europeans who have the luxury of training on whitewater year-round. Slovenian twins Pavol and Peter Hochschorner won their second consecutive gold with a score of 207.16. Germany's Marcus Becker and Stefan Henze claimed silver; Jaroslav Volf and Ondrej Stepanek of the Czech Republic took bronze.

In the kayak, French paddlers took gold (Benoit Peschier) and bronze (Fabien Lefevre). Campbell Walsh of Britain won silver.

Unlike so many athletes who have failed to medal or fallen short of expectations in recent days, Jacobi didn't question the scoring, cast aspersions on his rivals' performances or sulk over failing to live up to his ability. "I just tip my hat to the competitors," said Jacobi, a longtime Bethesda resident who has been training in Tennessee. "I've been part of the greatest class, the greatest category, in the greatest sport in the Olympic Games. And I couldn't be prouder to be a part of it."

It helps, of course, that Jacobi has been here before, having won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games. He's also 35, a husband and father, and brings a broader perspective to his second Olympics. Along with Taylor, who is joined here by his eight-months' pregnant wife, Jacobi didn't treat these Games simply as a stage to showcase his skills, but as an experience for friends and family to enjoy, as well.

"We came in here with three goals: to paddle to the best of our ability, have fun and enjoy the process," Jacobi explained. "And we did those things. So I can't be disappointed. I do feel like we were better than what our results showed today, but at the same time, I have no regrets about any of this."

The setting for Jacobi's Olympic farewell was a paddler's dream: a giant, man-made slalom course roiling with saltwater pumped in from the Aegean Sea that made the eyeballs sting and the super-sleek boats bounce over the rapids. It was equally fun for the spectators, who packed the 8,000-seat, seashell-shaped grandstand to cheer as the paddlers battled their way to the finish, fighting frantically to make time and avoid contact with the gates. Some fans sprawled on beach towels. Others formed circles to dance the traditional Kalamatianos. And nearly everyone waved a flag, whether Greek, Slovenian, Czech, German, French or American.

Whitewater paddling's final day at the 2004 Olympics had the wild flavor of a World Cup soccer match, but without the partisanship. Paddlers raced one at a time rather than against one another. It wasn't so much Czechs against Slovenians or Brits against Germans as it was man against water. That meant that everybody cheered a good run regardless of the boat's nationality. And all the action was projected on a giant TV screen set by the course's sharpest turn, accompanied by the fever pitch of play-by-play announcers and punctuated by horns, bells and the roar of rushing water.

It was simply the most challenging and rewarding venue Jacobi had ever seen. And even though it sent him packing prematurely, it filled him with inspiration, sending his mind racing with new ideas for promoting the sport back home.

"We've just got to find good ways to connect what's happening here in Athens with opportunities for American paddlers to have this experience for themselves," said Jacobi, who is unabashedly evangelical about his sport. "And we've got to connect it to the recreational paddlers all around the world -- millions of them -- who can enjoy recreational kayaking that much more because of the reception we have on the Olympic program now."

Just two days earlier, American Rebecca Giddens, 26, won silver in the women's kayak. Giddens was back at the venue Friday to cheer on Parsons, Heyl, Taylor and Jacobi -- the man she considers her mentor. Giddens was just 12 when she attended a paddling camp that Jacobi ran in Arkansas. She still remembers his patient coaching style and the speech he gave at the end of camp. "He did a talk with his [1992 gold] medal," Giddens said. "He let us put it around our neck and hold it. Seeing how real he was, and how he could relate with all of us, it made me realize this is something I want to do. This is something I can do."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company