Asked why he worked so hard to succeed in a sport that's so little known, world champion Jon Lugbill of Fairfax said, "personal satisfaction."

"I really enjoy training," he added with a smile so genuine it left no doubt about the answer. "I like working hard and I like to win.

"If I didn't like to win, I wouldn't train so hard and wouldn't have the competitive edge needed to win. On the other hand," he continued seriously, "if I only like winning, I wouldn't have any fun."

John's sport is whitewater slalom canoe racing, which requires split-second precision to put a very small boat through a course of downstream, upstream and reverse gates, over very big water.

It's a spectacular sport, full of explosive action, pitting human skills against a raging natural force.

The Europeans dominated the sport until 1979, and it's better known there than in the United States, where the kind of big water needed and the resources to hold the race are not usually found near a city. One of the few exceptions is Washington, and this weekend Jon and the top competitiors in the naion will race in the Great Falls Invitational Slalom.

According to Bill Endicott, coach of both Washington's Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA) and the U.S. slalom team, the race is important: It's one of only a few preliminaries to the U.S. team trials to determine who goes to Bala, Wales, in July for the 1981 world championships.

Jon won his championship at the least World's as the racers call the biennial event, held in 1979 at Jonquiere, Quebec. He won the gold medal in C-1 (closed-canoe) slalom and led a U.S. team sweep of all the medals in the class. A C-1 looks like a kayak, but the paddler kneels and uses a canoe paddle.

Endicott thinks Jon is better now than he was two years ago: "He's the leading trendsetter in the sport, in techniques and in the way he uses his body to control the boat and things."

To illustrate, Endicott showed a videotape of a race in North Carolina in late March. He pointed out the number and power of Jon's strokes and his control in entering and leaving the gates. Several times, he reran a segment where Jon exploded out of the gate, reaching so far foreward with his body that his hand was in the water, and used his paddle to launch himself over a foam-charged backwash like a pole vaulter.

To go back to the Worlds this year, Jon must qualify for the U.S. team by winning one of four team trails being held over the last two weekends in May. His tougest competition is likely to come from his CCA teammates, David Hearn and Bob Robinson, who were second and third at Jonquiere, and Kent Ford and bother Ron Lugbill.

They practice against one another every day, and Jon does always win. The effect of the intense competition, he says, is that "it makes us go harder in training and gets us used to close races like the world championships."

World championships for canoe and kayak have been held every other year since 1949. The United States did not complete in them until 1957 and did not win a medal until 1973. (Washington Jamie McEwan won a bronze in 1972 at the Olympics.) The East Germans and the Czechoslovaks dominated the sport.

Bill Endicott talked about that and the change in America's fortunes recently during one of his daily practice sessions.

At the time he was trying to straighten an old nail from the Pension Building reviewing stand so he could nail a leg on a homemade platform to hold a videotape camera.

"Just in the time I've been in the sport" -- starting in 1969 -- he said, tapping, "I've seen the U.S. go from the bottom to the top."

Endicott went to the world championships in 1971 and 1973 as a racer. Those were held in Europe, as they all were until Jonquiere. He remembers it still with frustration: "We'd go up against the East Germans and those guys in Europe and get blown away." It stung his national pride.

The nail was too short. It would have to do, he said: "We can't spend money on nails."

Behind Endicott lay the practice course, a forest of striped poles, hung in pairs, over the feeder canal that carries water from the Potomac to the C&O. In some places missing poles had been replaced with tree limbs.

It is, as he put it without rancor, a lowbudget operation compared to the training setups in Europe. His main support comes from CAA and from other canoeists.

His reward is the "psychic feedback from working with people who are so good at what they do, of having a little piece of it."

In To Win the Worlds, a book he published last year to spread the word about training for world-class competition -- and in part to raise money for the team -- Endicott tells potential racers: "You have to love it so much that you are willing to schedule everything else around your paddling."

He might also have noted that their rewards will be internal or in recongition from their peers. There will be no free equipment, no lucrative endorsements. No pot of gold waits a the end of the race for gold. The racers or their parents must pay all training and travel costs, which can mount to thousands of dollars if they go to international meets.

"Sometimes, I think it's the parents of these kids who beat the Europeans in 1979," Endicott said.

The Lugbills, Jon and Ron, have gone to every world championship since 1975, when they were the youngest paddlers ever to make a U.S. team. They're given credit for recognizing that the Europeans were "very beatable" in the C-1 classes.

"They were using old techniques," Jon remembers of the 1975 and 1977 Worlds. "They had not adjusted to the rule changes that allowed smaller boats and flatter decks, which let you sneak under the gates."

Winning in slalom is based on time, the time it takes to run the course, plus penalties for missing or touching a gate.

The CCA racers, though, did adjust. They designed and built a series of progressively smaller, faster boats and developed new paddling techniques to take advantage of them. At Jonquiere they used both, plus a discipline in running the gates acquired from Bill Endicott.

Endicott became the U.S. slalom team coach in 1976. Late in the year, after moving to Washington to take a job on the Hill, he began working with the young CCA team, which was already making a mark nationally.

A veteran paddler recently noted in a history of U.S slalom racing that the Washington "whiz kids" had speed and style, but lacked the consistency to win in international competition.

Working them hard in practice and stressing the need to run gates cleanly as well as quickly, Endicott brought them consistency.

The CCA team works out twice a day, seven days a week, at least two hours each time. Few complain about the regimen, and some who are in college have taken the semester off to prepare for the team trials and the Worlds.

Cathy Hearn did, but she doesn't consider it a sacrifice. "It's hard work, but it's like playing when you're supposed to be too old to play," she told an observer recently.

Hearn takes her play seriously, though, and was another bright star of the U.S. team at Jonquiere in 1979. She won three gold medals in the women's kayak classes, becoming the first person to win three golds in a single world championship.

She would like to make it four golds at Bala this summer, but like Jon she is constantly challenged by a teammate, Linda Harrison, who took the bronze medal in 1979.

The team that goes to Bala for the United States will be an underdog in spite of the surprising victory in 1979. That victory was in North America, and as Endicott put it, "When we went to the Europa Cup, and pre-Worlds last year, we fell on our face. It was a disappointing performances."

He says there are several reasons for that: not training as hard as for Jonquiere; a letdown from that win; Jon Lugbill's layoff from practice at college in Florida and his subsequent failure to make the team; and the shoestring conditions the team traveled under.

"Everyone was saving for the chance to go to Bala in '81 so they camped out, ate peanut butter sandwiches and hitchhiked to the races. We'll live a little better this time, which will help their concentration."

But the failure in 1980 may have been food for the team, making in work harder.

"We proved we could win at home. Now we have to prove we can win abroad. We are better than we were in 1979. Of course, everybody gets better every year. You just have to get better at a faster rate.

"We're coming back," Endicott declared. "I think the Europeans may be in for a surprise." WHO THEY ARE Some of the top hometown paddlers can be identified from the shore by their boats: Jon Lugbill -- metallic gray with silver edging (C-1); David Hearn -- metallic red with silver edging (C-1); Bob Robinson -- black with red and yellow fantail stripes on the back deck, yellow center stripes on the front (C-1); Cathy Hearn -- powder blue Kayak, purple helmet; Linda Harrison -- powder blue kayak, white helmet. Most racers won't be wearing traditional vest-type life jackets. Instead they will wear a new type of "lifedeck," with flotation sewn into their cockpit skirts."