Q: How does it feel knowing that your face is going to go nationwide on the Wheaties box?
A: It's exciting. I see this as a great thing that I've made possible for the sport. The big thing that I'll get out of it and that the sport will get out of it is having the canoe on millions of boxes of Wheaties.
Q: Did you eat Wheaties as a kid?
A: Yeah. When I was a kid, my parents bought us this little Peanuts poster with Snoopy out there with his dog dish and it says, "All great athletes wind up endorsing some sort of breakfast cereal." I always had it on the wall as one of those things that you laugh about. And now, wow, I'm gonna be on a breakfast cereal.
I'm a three-time world champion. I've been a world champion for six years and it's great, now I'm gonna get some national recognition. But I think winning the world championships was so much greater than anything that could be bestowed on me by Wheaties. Something like Wheaties is kind of a nice thing on the side. Most people think, wow, he's getting on the Wheaties box. They see that as a big huge accomplishment whereas I'd much rather win my fourth world championship.
Q: What's the difference between canoeing and kayaking with the covered canoe?
A: With the canoe you kneel and use the single-blade paddle and with a kayak you sit and use a double- bladed paddle. It's a little bit harder to move around in the canoe and requires a little bit more power, because you're doing approximately half the strokes. You also have to learn how to balance with only one blade on one side. Generally someone who's done a lot of open canoeing in the past will take up the closed canoe. Someone who hasn't had much introduction at all to canoeing will just to go to a kayak, because that's simpler to learn.
Q: How old were you when you first started?
A: The first time I paddled white water was in a kayak, right over here on the Potomac. Back then, boats were pretty crude and heavy. I was a little 11-year-old kid, having to carry a 35-pound boat down the river and back up. I remember that more than about anything.
I was almost full grown by the time I was 13 and I qualified for the two-man canoe event on the U.S. team with my brother in 1975. I was 14 when I raced the world championship. I didn't think the guys racing were that good. We ended up 22d in the race. But, somehow I thought, hey, if you really went at this and were serious about it, trained hard, you'd blow these guys away.
Q: You've obviously put so much time in this sport you have to be very selfish. How does that enter into trying to sustain a relationship?
A: I don't have to be that selfish. Basically it's looked at as a job, an investment in the future. I've been able to travel all over the world. Europe 10 times now, Australia, California, all over the U.S. Canoeing is going to take up a lot of personal time, but we'll also get to see a lot more things.
It's not just me being able to go out and win a world championship now and retire and never see a boat again. I learn how to pursue a subject all the way just to find out everything I can about it -- do everything possible to reach that goal. I'll be able to do that with any subject now.
When I was in school I could put that to work very easily. If I wanted to get something done, I knew how to go about it and get something done. I'm sure I spent a lot less time and got the same grades as other students because I knew how to do it. A lot of it's mental control. I took a sports psychology class last year (and) basically what I was learning is what I already knew, (what) I had to learn to become a world champion. Things that I take for granted, visual imagery -- I walk into a test, I have a positive attitude. I've already seen myself walk out of the test having aced it. When I walk in the test I know how to lower my stress level. It's just not common knowledge to most people.
Q: How do you lower your stress level?
A: Positive imagery. If some event in the future is causing stress for me, I visualize myself doing it very well. I visualize success, people patting me on the back. Usually if I can visualize it I can normally make it come true. Once I could do (something) in my mind I could do it for real.
Q: If you win the world championship, you will have done something for the fourth consecutive time, something that nobody has done in your sport. How do you handle that?
A: I've had to overcome a lot of, well, "You've already won one, why are you doing it now?" Then I won my second time and third. There doesn't seem like as much pressure now to repeat as it was in the past, as far as breaking records. That stuff's all kind of nice, but what really matters is the present. What's important to me is June 14, 1985, what I do then. It doesn't matter what anybody else has ever done in the past, it doesn't matter what I've done in the past, what counts for me how is reaching my goal of winning June 14.
Q: What's your encore?
A: I don't think of it as topping that or an encore. I see it as reaching a higher level that I personally have not been as good as I can be. I have not reached close enough toward that ultimate run. When I run a run-through in my mind, when I see myself go through a slalom course in my mind, what I'm actually doing on the course isn't close enough yet. I want to get as close as possible. Never reach it, but I want to get as close as possible.
Q: How many more years do you think you have in the sport?
A: I'm 24, still pretty young as far as the sport goes. I have a great deal of experience and I'm much better right now than I've ever been. Maybe somewhere in the future I'll search for other goals and pursue them (in) the same vigorous, attacking kind of way. I've achieved a great deal of self satisfaction.
Q: Do you see any end to this?
A: Eventually there comes a time when you're not going to get better. Things are going to start to decline and you just don't want to do it. When that happens I think you just fade into the sunset and go away. I remember in the last Olympics (skier) Phil Mahre saying, "I hate doing this. I only do it for the money. I'll never do it again." Blah, blah, blah, blah. I hate seeing that stuff. If you hate to do it, don't do it. I don't care if you are making money. Don't do anything you hate to do.
Q: Don't you ever have mornings when you just don't want to get up and --
A: There are times I don't want to go out there. And there are times when I might go out there and not do much. But I think in general that what goes on in your mind is controlled by your mind. But if you start telling yourself, "I want to be good at this. I want to go out there, I want to do it," all the time then you start to believe it. You believe what your mind says.
Q: There's a lot to be said for quitting on top and going out with honor. If you find yourself not performing well, despite how hard you train --
A: That might be hard for me to take. Whenever I go to a race, I know I can win or have a very good chance of winning. It's an attitude. Also it's an ability. I do win a lot. I think that when you are not winning all the time, there'll either have to be a big mental change or else. I don't see it happening, but it's possible that I could still be getting better. I could still be getting closer to my perfect run and be getting beat. If that happens, that happens.
In my sport I don't have that many external forces. I don't have that much pressure from the media, from sponsors. So the internal pressures of being the best that I can be are the most important.
Q: How will you know if you have a perfect or an ultimate run?
A: Probably have it when you don't know you really had one. You probably would get done with your run and say, "Wow, did I just go down a course?" or "What, what just happened?" If you get down to the bottom and don't remember anything that you did and everything just went well then you probably just had it.
Q: I've seen a picture of you going down the Great Falls and it looked pretty incredible. How close to death have you ever come?
A: I personally have never come close to death in a kayak. Never. For me, for Jon Lugbill to run Great Falls, it's very, very easy at low levels. When the river's at the right level, which I find out and I know, it's very easy for me to go up there and do, because I have a very high level of skill. I can put my boat in an exact place. I'm very controlled stresswise. There's no problem with me freaking out at the last minute and going the wrong place because I'm very controlled. Other people start to lose those factors. They haven't boated enough. They don't have control of their stress. They don't know the water levels. All those things multiplied probably quadruple exponentially the risk involved. A beginning kayaker could die very easily at Great Falls.
Q: Do you entertain any ideas of doing, say a 28,000 mile course around North America? Is there much adventurer in you?
A: I like to go out and run some river or rapids that hasn't been run or go to a new country, foreign place. But as far as paddling up the Mississippi, and then up in Missouri and hiking over the Continental Divide, that doesn't sound like much adventure to me. That sounds like drudgery. I'm a little more quick- paced for that. I'd rather have something fast and exciting every day.
Q: Do you remember seeing "Deliverance?" What was your reaction?
A: I don't know. It's caused a lot of deaths. A lot of people have tried to go out there and be Burt Reynolds. The year after "Deliverance," they had 19 people die on the Chattooga? The "Deliverance" syndrome. Go out there, hey, this is hard white water. I'm out here in the wilderness, but this is cool. This is a real man thing to do. They were dying because they didn't have the skill; they didn't have any knowledge. They were completely ignorant. Our sport got a bit of a bad name for that.
Q: You're trained in river rescue. Have you seen people get hurt?
A: I've been around for a long time. I've been on a lot of white water trips and seen an awful lot. I have built-in experience. I also have emergency medical technician's certification in the state of Virginia. So, combined with the experience and the ability to treat somebody once you get them out, I feel that I'm very, very useful on the river. I'm much more effective than a helicopter. I can get out there to the exact place. I know exactly what the currents are doing. I know exactly how the water temperature affects that person and I usually know one of the best methods to get them out.
Q: Have you ever saved somebody's life?
A: You never know whether you actually saved his life, but I've saved people. When I was working as a raft guide up in the Allegheny, one of the other raft guides fell out of the raft and got her legs pinned under this rock. I had to jump out of my boat and climb up and haul her out of the water. In situations like that you have to know how not to get yourself hurt in the process of saving them. Saving someone on a river usually is knowing what to do and reacting quick. For me, white water rivers are very safe. I know a great deal about them and I know what trouble other people can get in. It's just like other people being on the highway. A rabbit or something out on the highway gets killed, because it doesn't know the traffic laws. It doesn't know that cars coming at him don't just stop. The same thing happens with a normal person getting out on the river. They don't know what's going on, because the rapids are different from what they normally see.
Q: Does a river or water have any spiritual significance for you at all?
A: No. But watching white water is like watching the waves break at the ocean. It's something that your mind can just sit there and look at. It's not regular, not the same thing all the time.
Q: You went through college and got a degree. A lot of your peers are probably out in banks or in graduate school, gearing towards a career, the whole yuppie thing. Do you feel left out of that at all?
A: No. I bet they're pretty jealous. When I graduated last May -- first of all, I didn't make graduation because I was out in Oregon for a competition on NBC. Then the next weekend, I flew over to Poland and Czechoslovakia and raced over there. I spent nine weeks in Europe. I won seven races. I taught canoeing in Italy for two weeks. Then I came home, went to Canada for a week. Out to Wisconsin for races. Taught kayaking out in Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks. Spent a couple months in Connecticut, California. I've been on the go, doing exciting things, whereas most of them have no idea what they did last summer. They can't remember what happened any day in the last year of their life. I have exciting things happening in my life all the time. I can always remember what I was doing. Twenty years from now, when I look back, 1985, I'll remember what I did. It just won't be one of those years mixed in with all the others.