The Paddling Life
Finding the Spirit of the Olympics
I’ve officially lost my touch. After drinking $.75 Tsingtao beers with the Russian women’s volleyball team while watching Rafael Nadal whip-up on Novac Djokovic in the men’s tennis semi-finals at the Beijing Olympics, I end up sharing a hot tub back at the NBC hotel with super-heavyweight wrestler Rulon Garder, any amorous thoughts I had of the Russians sinking with the rising water.
Furthering my unease: Rulon extends his right foot to show me a missing toe, the result of a snowmobiling accident between his gold medal in 2000 and his bronze in Athens four years later.
Bathing with Rulon wasn’t in the brochure when I took a temporary Olympic gig with NBC this summer, but I rolled with his punches and soon learned that we share more than a minimum of nine toes. Long neglected by mainstream media, our respective sports were about to get a Yao-Ming sized boost. NBC’s various networks were offering 180 hours of programming a day–more airtime than every previous Summer Olympics combined. My job was to help paddling get a good long ride on that wave.
Rulon is a real Olympic hero, a Wyoming farm boy who vanquished the unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Olympics, then survived the snowmobile accident and a mid-winter plane crash into Lake Powell to emerge, Gump-like, as NBC’s on-air wrestling expert. I was here to help his color counterpart in paddling, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi, spice up the paddling events for viewers.
When I told veteran broadcaster Marty Snider about my fall from grace with the Russian gals and subsequent liaison with Rulon, he was genuinely impressed. “Way to go,” he said. “You had an Olympic moment.”
Snider was one of several big-time broadcasters taking a break from money sports like the NBA and NFL to cover boating in Beijing. Their mission was to beam more competitive Olympic moments back into American living rooms. My part in the whole affair wasn’t too much different from my first guiding gig: staying out of trouble and coming up with good tales to spin around the campfire—or in this case, helping Jacobi and play-by-play announcer Craig Hummer, fresh from calling the Tour de France, unearth interesting backstories to tell on the air.
The Shunyi Whitewater Park was full of such juicy details. We discovered that German kayaker Jennifer Bongardt once appeared in Playboy, and that French kayaking superstar Fabien Lefevre has his own line of cologne. Then the Aussies told us they called the course’s two biggest features Wok and Roll and Stir Fry—Jacobi used the names on the air and they stuck. Every little detail went into my notebook as I steered the camera crew toward the moments and emotions that best captured the spirit of the Olympics.
Chinese kayaker Li Jingling’s run was one of the first of those electrifying moments. The crowd of 27,000 – the largest at any paddling event ever — waved red banners and roared as their paddler charged the gates. They had high hopes—paddling is one of five sports in which China had invested heavily to increase its gold-medal count—but despite all the resources and expectations, Li was ousted in the semifinals. The crowd fell hush as our camera zoomed in tight on her fists-to-face disappointment.
The next day I dragged the camera crew into the stands to sit with the Parsons family during the men’s K-1 prelims. Scott Parsons was America’s best hope for a slalom medal, and his mom, Mary, was so nervous she could barely watch. The family hugged with joy when the first scores flashed across the screen, showing Parsons in third place. But on his second run he incurred a 50-second penalty for cutting a gate too close, knocking him out of contention. My stomach was as full of lead as certain Chinese toys, and so were those of his family. But the camera never looked away, catching their shock and grief. The agony of defeat goes hand-in-hand with the thrill of victory, and aside from this moment of pathos, NBC’s main paddling storyline had just been knocked farther off line than Parson’s kayak.
There’s a reason NBC shipped 5,000 pounds of Starbucks to Beijing. Fueled by the free java, Jacobi stayed in the edit bay until 2 a.m., re-voicing the race to fit in the backstories we’d been saving for later. The next day we captured another moment of agony, as the front-running Slovenian kayaker Peter Kauzer failed to qualify for the final, snapping his paddle across his boat in rage as if it were a twig. “I feel like shit,” he told his country’s cameramen. “I don’t want anyone to feel like me right now.”
We were overdue for an uplifting Olympic moment, and the final round delivered in the unlikely story of Benjamin Boukpeti, paddling for the tiny West African nation of Togo. When he charged across the line for the bronze—his country’s first medal ever—he splintered his paddle, too, only this time in jubilation, shaking the pieces at the sky. The flag-waving Slovakians were celebrating as well; their countrymen took home three golds, led by twin C2 sensations Peter and Pavol Hochschorner, the first whitewater paddlers ever to win the gold three times.
The Olympic spirit ran just as deep in flatwater, where New Zealander Steve Ferguson plucked weeds off another racer’s rudder at the start, and the powerful Hungarian team wore black armbands in tribute to their countryman Gyorgy Kolonics, the two-time Olympic canoeing champion who died while training just a month earlier. It was evident in the stoic interview Canadian favorite Adam Van Kouverden gave, after inexplicably placing ninth in the Men’s K1 1,000-meter, his worst performance ever. “I have no excuse,” he deadpanned after that disastrous final, before rebounding to take silver in the 500-meter event.
For every Michael Phelps, it seems, there is a Liu Xiang, the Chinese celebrity hurdler forced to miss his long-awaited home Games due to a last-minute injury. But the spirit driving all of the athletes in Beijing — including the 330 paddlers attending from 60 nations, 14 of them carrying their country’s flags in the Opening Ceremonies — links them as closely as the Olympic’s interlocking rings.
Perhaps it’s my three-week stay in the land of Confucius that makes me wax poetic when I return to my hotel room on my last night, lift the toilet lid, and stare at the lavender orchids floating in the bowl below. There can be a yin-yang beauty in everything, I surmise, from porcelain to missing the Olympic podium. And dreams can be made and broken here — just like mine were in the overflowing Jacuzzi.