Is this the year Davey Hearn finally catches Jon Lugbill and wins the gold medal he's been seeking for eight years?

Or will Lugbill rewrite the record books and become the first person to win four straight world whitewater paddling championships?

Not even their coach will predict which of the two Bethesda men will come home from West Germany next month with gold.

But Lugbill and Hearn are so far ahead of everyone else in the world that U.S. team Coach Bill Endicott all but guarantees they will finish one-two in Augsburg June 14-16, as they have for the last three world titles.

"Unless," Endicott said, "one of them breaks an arm."

Lugbill, who graduated last year from the University of Virginia, is 23 and has been on the U.S. National Whitewater Team since 1975, when he paddled a two-man canoe in the worlds in Skopje, Yugoslavia, with his older brother Ron. He was 13, the youngest person ever on the team.

Hearn, 26, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1982, has been on the national team since 1977.

In 1979, in the world championships in Jonquierre, Quebec, Lugbill won the first U.S. gold medal ever in one-man canoe, beating silver medalist Hearn by four seconds.

Two years later, in the next world competition in Bala, Wales, Lugbill beat Hearn by the blink of an eye, three-tenths of a second. And in 1983 in Merano, Italy, Lugbill won by nine-tenths of a second.

The slalom canoe races take close to four minutes to run, meaning fractions-of-a-second margins should be nearly unheard of. No one else has come near Lugbill and Hearn for the last three titles.

Whose turn is it now? "I don't know," said Yuri Kusuda of Rockville, a teammate of Hearn's sister Cathy on the women's kayak team. "Jon won the first three. They'll both be around until 1989. That gives them three more. Maybe Davey will win the next three."

Evidence points Hearn's way. He and Lugbill have raced six times this season in preparation for the worlds, and Hearn has won five. But evidence can be deceiving. Endicott says Hearn has tremendous consistency, but Lugbill has a capacity to ignore little races in order to peak for the big one. Also, Lugbill has beaten Hearn both times they raced on the man-made Augsburg course.

Endicott figures both men can go in as underdogs, "Davey because he's lost the last three and Jon because Davey's been beating him lately."

On Saturday, when 16 of the 20 members of the U.S. team competed in the S-Turn slalom races at Great Falls, Hearn and Lugbill finished one-two, as usual. Each paddled a total of about seven minutes, running the half-mile course through 25 gates twice. The final difference? One-tenth of a second, Hearn the winner.

"A tenth," said Hearn, shaking his head, "is nothing."

There is no apparent animosity between the two, even though they want the same thing and only one will get it.

They train together, scratch out meager livings designing boats together, share the same coach and share strategy and training schemes.

They are the two best whitewater canoe racers in the world, and part of the reason, they say, is that they have the best equipment, designed by them.

Working with former U.S. team member Bob Robison, Hearn and Lugbill design the "Max" series of racing boats: Max II, Supermax, Ultramax, Cudamax, Batmax and the latest in the breed, which both will paddle at Augsburg, the foam-core Super Batmax.

Hearn used his Super Batmax at Great Falls. Later, a reporter lifted it effortlessly over his head with one hand. It is 14 feet long and weighs an unimaginable 12 pounds. "Space-age stuff," said Hearn.

The lightest European boats weigh about 15 pounds, Hearn said, and many paddlers at the worlds will be lugging around yachts that weigh 20 pounds and more.

But Lugbill said the advantage of the boats is only part of the U.S. edge. He and Hearn have upgraded training for the worlds, working on a two-a-day practice schedule since last fall, mostly at the feeder canal off the C&O Canal near Carderock, plus employing weight training, running and aerobics.

"I haven't missed a day of paddling since November," said Lugbill.

According to Endicott, Lugbill, who has huge upper-body and shoulder muscles, is the stronger and Hearn the smoother paddler.

The Augsburg course, which features big water, should favor strength over finesse, Endicott said, and Lugbill has that capacity to peak for a big race. But still, Endicott's not predicting anything.

It just might be Hearn's turn.