Jamie McEwan looks too young to be such an old legend. Particularly when he is racing his canoe through the thundering froth of the Potomac River, just below Great Falls.

"I can still make the gates," said McEwan, a Silver Spring native who at 19 won a bronze medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics that inspired a generation of Washington-area paddlers to become the best whitewater racers in the world.

Last weekend, old man McEwan, now a venerable 31, returned to the Potomac for the annual S-Turn races. Some of the competitors jokingly called him "Pops." All of them accorded McEwan credit for making Washington an international mecca for medal-winning paddlers.

"It's all his fault," said Cathy Hearn, a three-time world kayaking champion from Garret Park. "Watching him in 1972 is what made me decide I would train, no question about it."

"Jamie McEwan is the granddaddy of our effort to win the worlds," said Bill Endicott, the coach of the U.S. white-water team that has produced half a dozen world champions and dominated international competition for the last three years.

The story of McEwan and the local paddlers who followed his white-water wake reads like a modern fairy tale. Call it Chariots of Foam. It begins with McEwan, then a student at Yale, traveling to West Germany in 1972 for the first and last Olympic white-water slalom event. With him were a few other local paddlers, including Eric Evans and Angus Morrison.

Without coaching or funding, the Americans were expected to do no more than personify the Olympic ideal--to compete for the glory of the game. When McEwan won his medal, the drama seemed made for television.

And a lot of teen-agers in the Washington area were watching.

Down to the river in slivers of plastic came Cathy Hearn and her brother David, Jon and Ron Lugbill, Stephen and Michael Garvis. With the financial support of their parents, these adolescent river rats formed the nucleus of a group that would soon shock a white-water world ruled almost entirely by Europeans.

"We didn't have a wide base with a tremendous number of athletes to choose from," said Bill Endicott, who competed for the United States in wild water during the low-water years of the late 1960s and began coaching the team in 1977. "Essentially, what we've got is a commando unit."

In 1979, the team won five individual and four team medals in world championships in Canada. Two years later at the world championships in Bala, Wales, the U.S. white-water team won 10 individual and five team medals. Last year in Italy, the U.S. team again proved its staying power. Jon Lugbill of Fairfax won his sixth gold medal in single canoe while Dave Hearn finished second for the third time in a row. Fritz and Lecky Haller of Glencoe, Md., won a gold medal in the two-man canoe, taking the crown from the reigning champion Garvis brothers.

If the competitors at this weekend's races had worn all their medals, many would have sunk under the weight.

The most revered medal, however, might have been McEwan's bronze. It sparked a phenomenal response and served as continuing evidence that anything was possible.

"It always stuck in my mind that if Jamie had done it, somehow we could too," said Dave Hearn, the sport's foremost boat designer, who is now in a position to give McEwan tips on how to run a slalom course.

McEwan never won another major medal. After taking off a full year from school to train for the Olympics, McEwan returned to Yale after Munich and relegated paddling to a seasonal role. Meanwhile, the athletes he inspired began training full time. Soon, he was passed by the very wave he created.

"Things were different back then. Part of the reason I went to Yale was because the paddling was not very good there. I didn't want it to dominate my life," said McEwan, who attended Landon, where he won the national prep school wrestling championship in the 145-pound class in 1970.

After graduating from college, McEwan remained at Yale to work in the admissions office. He continued paddling, despite the fact that his schedule prevented him from keeping pace with the world's best.

"I always thought I would compete until I began losing, then quit clean," said McEwan this weekend, after his first run on a very familiar river. "But I found that I had fun, even losing."

Now married, with two children and a third on the way, McEwan has just finished a novel, is living in Connecticut and seems happy. But talk to him about what might have been, if he had not left the water after his Olympic triumph, and McEwan betrays a slight wistfulness.

"We all had the attitude that paddling wasn't real life. It was just a game," said McEwan. "But since then, I've discovered that real life is just a game too. I could take it more seriously now."