When Jamie McEwan won the bronze medal in C-1 slalom at the 1972 Munich Olympics, it spurred a U.S. slalom craze the likes of which has never been repeated. McEwan passed away from cancer on June 14 at age 61, leaving a hole in the hearts of all who knew him. PL checks in past racers for their take on his contributions to the sport…
With partner, Lecky Haller, McEwan went onto win a silver medal in C-2 slalom at the 1987 World Championships in Bourg St.-Maurice, France, win the overall C-2 World Cup title in 1988, and place fourth with Haller at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He later teamed up with his son Devin to compete in the 2000s. Now he’s moved on to the great river in the sky.
“There are few people I’ve known that lived a healthier lifestyle than Jamie,” says former U.S. Slalom Teammate Jon Lugbill, who won five world championships in C-1. “He excised regularly, ate a very healthy diet, never smoked, no drugs, and he lived a relatively stress free life. He was a great ambassador for the sport.”
When it comes to McEwan’s contributions to slalom, Lugbill hardly holds back.
“Jamie’s bronze medal performance at the 1972 Olympics provided legitimacy to whitewater slalom in the United States,” says Lugbill, the only paddler to have ever appeared on a Wheaties box. “Paddling was all of a sudden an acceptable endeavor for people of all backgrounds and not just crazy people. A whole cadre of young paddlers including myself benefited from this because our parents were then willing to drive us to all of those rivers, lakes and ponds. I know my Olympic dreams started right then in 1972.”
“Jamie was one of the truly great people I’ve met in my life because he did so much for others and with such ease,” he adds. “He was always smiling, being positive and seeing the potential for great things from those he met.
“I will always remember a 1977 training camp up in Canada before the World Championships. He gathered the six C-1’s training there and said that we needed our own rules for practice. He said C-1 paddlers would finish every run they start and not snit or quit, we would do the recommended number of runs on every course set and we would show up ready to go at the start of every workout. These were very simple rules that to this day remind me that showing up, working hard and never giving up are the keys to success in almost any endeavor you take part in.”
McEwan began kayaking at his family’s Valley Mill Camp before earning a degree in literature from Yale University in 1975. He married noted children’s author and illustrator, Sandra Boynton, shortly later and ventured into the world of children’s book publishing himself, writing such works as The Heart of Cool and Willy the Scrub.
In 1998, McEwan and his brother Tom were members of a first descent expedition down Tibet’s Tsangpo Gorge, in which fellow U.S. slalom teammate Doug Gordon died.
“Jamie was very competitive, but had a healthy view of competition,” says former U.S. Slalom Team member Bruce Lessels, who owns Zoar Outdoor Center in Charlemont, Mass., and was friends with McEwan for more than 30 years. “One of the things he loved most about it was the friendships he formed as a result of competing. He always shared tips by the side of the race course and many of his competitors were his best friends.
Lessels also notes his more academic and good-natured side. “He was curious and intelligent – fun to debate and full of interesting ideas and perspectives on politics, sports and philosophy,” says Lessels, who competed against him in the mid and late ‘80s. “He was very dedicated to his family and one of the most warm, generous people I’ve known. He didn’t live according to many conventions – he made his own way and lived an original life.”
USACK executive director and 1992 C2 gold medalist Joe Jacobi, who was three years old when McEwan won the bronze in 1972, adds that McEwan was never a recognition type of guy. “The best kind of recognition he wanted was just sitting around the campfire and telling stories,” says Jacobi, who learned to paddle at Valley Mill, the McEwans’ summer camp. “1972 was the most important year in the history of our sport. NOC was founded, Jamie won the bronze at the Olympics, and Deliverance came out. It was a big result in a big, big year for whitewater in general.”
Jacobi recounts a story from when he was just 14 and McEwan borrowed his C-1 boat and then ran Great Falls with it the next day, breaking it in two. “He was a legendary figure who was talked about all the time,” he says. “He inspired this whole Washington, D.C., group of kids that ended up dominating the sport for 10 years.”
And above all, says Jacobi, he identified himself as a paddler first and foremost. “He never felt like an athlete from the U.S.,” he says. “Flag-waving wasn’t his thing. He felt more like an athlete of the sport. He was more about just being a member of the paddling community. But he loved the equal platform the Olympics represented.”
Former C-1 World Champion and 16-year U.S. Slalom Team member Kent Ford also has fond memories of McEwan. “I remember when I was a 14-year-old kid, Jamie was the total hero of the DC paddling scene,” he says. “When he arrived at the swimming pool roll session to test his new Olympic boat, the place went quiet with respect. And this was when he was 19, before winning the bronze. After that medal, the entire DC paddling community completely got into slalom. There were slalom gates and races everywhere, with adults stepping up to coach and drive youngsters to the river. His influence was evident all those years, with DC becoming a mandatory stop for any international racer wanting to learn more about the sport. Jamie said he was an accidental Olympic medalist. An accidental momentum followed his lead.
Ford remembers one time paddling the Youghigheny in 1975 with Jamie and his brother Tom. “I managed to break my boat into two halves and was totally humiliated in front of my idols,” he says. “Jamie made a point to encourage me, and the atmosphere was totally supportive. No ribbing, no joking, just support. I doubt I would have continued the sport if it had been different.
Above all, he says it was McEwan’s attitude that set the tone. “I think Jamie had so much influence because of his attitude. He was the original dirtbag boater- in every complimentary use of the term. He had his priorities well figured. ‘Leave time for being lazy,’ he always said. He gave everyone around him validity and left everyone feeling valued.
“He never lost the love of getting out on playful backyard river runs, and on wilderness rivers and doing expeditions,” he adds. “In an era when slalom racing was increasingly becoming stadium driven, he kept his boating interests balanced with the appeal of wild rivers. I am confident an “accidental momentum” will continue to follow his lead.”