Last week there was a reunion on the feeder canal.

The canal is a slough off the Potomac River a few miles north of Washington where some of the finest whitewater kayak and canoe racers in the world practice daily.

There was a bunch on hand last week, enjoying the first sunny days of not-quite-spring, plowing through bamboo gates suspended over the rushing water, plugging away to improve their times.

A big, curly-haired man strode up through the woods and spied his prey.

"Hey, who's that gray-haired guy out there? Is that McEwan? Jeez, don't you know when to quit, kid?"

A man in a black-decked canoe looked up and grinned.

Old mates Angus Morrison and Jamie McEwan exchanged hellos.

Morrison and McEwan are local legends, the young founders of world class whitewater racing in the Washington area.

Ten years ago these two set their sights on West Germany, where in 1972 for the first and only time, whitewater competition was part of the Olympics.

For 15 months Morrison and McEwan were almost inseparable, plying their nearly unknown trade around the country and around the world. They worked against each other to build their capacities to take on the best paddlers in the highest competition the sport has ever known.

It worked.

In 1972 Cathy and David Hearn were driving through Montana with their parents when a bulletin came over the radio. Jamie McEwan of Silver Spring, Md., had just won America's only Olympic medal in whitewater canoeing -- a bronze.

The Hearns, veteran Washington paddlers, let out a collective whoop. "I remember thinking, "That's what I'm going to do,'" said Cathy. "We thought Jamie was great but at least we knew he was human."

Others in the capital area were similarly aroused. Suddenly whitewater racing became a Washington sport.

The jolt Morrison and McEwan provided paid off seven years later when Cathy and David Hearn, John and Ron Lougbill, Bob Robison and a passel of other Washington-area paddlers led a U.S. team to a startling first-place finish in the 1979 white-water world championships at Jonquierre, Quebec.

Now the U.S. paddlers are gearing up to defend their title when the biannual competition resumes in July in Bala, Wales.

In the midst of the clutch of boats at the feeder canal working under the harsh tutelage of the U.S. slalom coach, Bill Endicott, last week sat McEwan. At age 28 he had trundled down from Connecticut to take one more shot at making the team. And there was Morrison, visiting from Vermont, to rib him.

McEwan looked bemused.

"I'm having fun," he said. "I think I can still race and not completely embarass myself. But things have gotten beyond me. I have to imitate these young kids now, instead of the other way around."

"Ready? Three, two, one, go!"

World-class canoe and kayak racers hear that cadence in their sleep; it is their incessant call to action.

On the feeder canal the voices are those of Endicott and his wife Abby. Each has a pair of stopwatches and a spot to stand along the 100-yard long practice slalom course.

The paddlers line up in their boats and push off one by one to run through the gates as they get the call. The goal is to beat everyone else's time.

On Thursday 20 boats were out. "That might be a record," Endicott said.

Someone asked Cathy Hearn, the women's kayaking world champion, if the pace wasn't a little hectic for March. "Yeah," she said, "and it's going to get worse."

Hearn and her brother David took spring semester off from college to train. They spend three hours a day in their boats, seven days a week. They have two workouts a day, morning and evening, plus some white work and running. "We don't do anything but eat, sleep and paddle" said Cathy.

Is there any concern about overtraining?

"Sure, we worry about it all the time,'" said Endicott, the volunteer coach."The problem is that everybody around the world is getting better all the time. We have to get better just a little faster than they do.

"There are two ways of doing that -- improve the quality of our training or increase the volume. We're doing both. The object is to push it as close to the line as we can, but not go over."

Endicott has 26 Washington-area aspirants for the 16-person team that will compete in Wales. Trials to select the team will be May 23-24 at the Savage River in Western Maryland and May 30-31 at the Nantahala in North Carolina.

Endicott guesses that the majority of the final 16 will be his Washington area proteges, probably a strong majority.

McEwan is not likely to be among them. But he'll be at the trials anyway, seeing the fruits of his labor, one way or the other.