In March, Alexandra Harbold slid into a kayak at the Washington Canoe Club for the first time in nearly three years. As she paddled under Key Bridge, she wasn't thinking about winning a medal at the Pan American Games -- what she, Fairfax native Julia Sorzano and two others did here this morning by finishing third in the four-person 500-meter sprint on Lake Minnedosa.

The two-time Olympian merely wanted to ease back into training after her long absence from the sport.

"I felt off-balance and uncoordinated and, of course, a little fat," said Harbold, a Georgetown graduate and District resident, who is 5 feet 8 and a muscular 138 pounds. "I thought, `My hips never used to hit the side of the kayak.' "

Just four months after that test run, Harbold's hips aren't hitting the side of the kayak anymore. And, after today's race, her feet didn't seem to be touching the ground, either. Harbold and Sorzano were elated at their bronze medal finish in 1 minute 44.16 seconds, which left them behind only the powerful Canadians (1:41.54), who finished fourth at last year's world championships, and a team from Cuba (1:43.31).

The mid-morning race, a day before Friday's opening ceremonies, produced the United States' first medal of the Pan American Games.

"I'm extremely happy about getting a medal," Harbold, 34, said. "I really did not expect to make this team."

Now, suddenly, Harbold has her thoughts on a third Olympic Games in Sydney next year.

Harbold's husband, Michael, also a 1996 Olympic kayaker, decided to resume training this spring after accepting a job in the fiber optics division of Bell Atlantic. When Michael's employers learned he was a former Olympian, Alexandra said, they offered him time off to train and compete. Alexandra followed his lead.

"I knew I would be slow," Alexandra said. "But in my heart, I really wanted to come back."

When Alexandra Harbold showed up for a U.S. training camp in Florida in March, Sorzano could hardly believe it. Sorzano, 28, a National Cathedral School graduate, had lost track of the woman she once competed with in a two-person kayak.

The pair decided to work together again, and they plan to compete in a two-person kayak at the national championships in August. At the Pan American Games trials, they teamed with Kathryn Colin and Tamara Jenkins in the four-person event. In recent weeks, Sorzano and Harbold have trained on the Potomac, or in Atlanta, where Sorzano resides part of the year.

"It really wasn't that hard to jump in the boat and race," Sorzano said. "Allie, with her experience, was able to follow [the paddling rhythm] very well. She really didn't lose much."

At today's race on Lake Minnedosa, just north of Brandon, Manitoba, Sorzano brought a small fan club -- her parents, Shannon and Jose Sorzano of Arlington, and an aunt, uncle and two cousins.

Harbold, however, said she didn't have much time to celebrate the victory.

"I'm going to go to sleep and get up and train tomorrow," she said. "I can't really take any time off. I don't want to lose the little edge that I have."

CAPTION: Canada sprints to gold medal in four-person 500-meter sprint in which Georgetown graduate Alexandra Harbold, Fairfax native Julia Sorzano finished third, behind Cuba.

CAPTION: The United States' four-man kayak team edges Canada for the first U.S. gold medal at Lake Minnedosa in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After a long absence from the sport, two-time Olympian and Georgetown graduate Alexandra Harbold, Fairfax native Julia Sorzano helped women's team to bronze in 500-meter sprint behind Canada and Cuba.