Friday, August 3, 2012

Olympic Memories: 40 Years Since Augsburg (Part Two)

This August six NOC alumni celebrate the 40th anniversary of their appearance in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. The list includes Carrie Ashton, Louise Holcombe, Cindi Goodwin, Russ Nichols, Angus Morrison and John Burton . We caught up with John to discuss whitewater paddling—which was making its Olympic debut, the thrill of going to the Olympics, how the games changed his life, the tragedy of the Munich massacre and what it's like watching the London games on TV 40 years later. John also gives us a look into his Olympic scrapbook and reflects on the significance of participating in the world's biggest sporting event, the Summer Olympics.

[Continued from Part One]

Tragedy in Munich
Of course, the 1972 Games were marred by the Munich Massacre. John's competitive events were finished six days before the violence, and he spent most of this time at the games enjoying the Olympic Village and watching other athletes compete in a variety of events. He even had a hard-to-get finish line seat for the 100 meter dash. However, the hostage situation cast a pall over what was a wonderful experience. Of the hostage situation and subsequent violence John wrote:

"Yesterday 12 Israeli Olympic team members were murdered.  Kidnapped and murdered by fanatics.  How and why could that happen here, in this place of international fellowship, friendly competition, shared effort and achievement?  What now?  Will the Games be cancelled?  We are all going into the Olympic stadium today for a memorial service—what an amazing contrast to the joy and good will we all experienced just a few days ago in that place."

For Munich athletes like John, who never went to another Olympic Games, it is difficult to process the attack and to understand how it fits into their Olympic memories. The Olympic experience was rightly a high point of the competitors' lives, and they fondly remember the competition and the positive experiences of the games. However, in the midst of the Olympic Village a gruesome and horrible situation played out in plain sight. This was a stark contrast to the as-inspiring-as-usual Olympic competition and Olympic spirit seen and felt in the Munich venues and recalled in the minds of the Games' athletes.

Looking Back

John may have qualified for the 1976 Montreal Games if whitewater had been offered, but whitewater slalom would not return to the Olympics until 1992. He breifly retired after the Olympics, but returned in 1973 to coach the US team at the World Championships in Switzerland. In 1974 John taught a clinic at NOC—the first visit to his future home; he would move to NOC in 1976. While John doesn't seem very upset about missing the '76 Games, he regrets that the twenty year break between whitewater slalom events occurred at a time of American dominance. Davey HearnJohn Lugbill, Cathy Hearn and Kent Ford all could have won gold medals at the Olympics in the 1980's, and combined with Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbough's gold in Barcelona in 1992, whitewater slalom could have become a highly recognized medal program in the United States. In addition to skill, John asserts that these athletes had media appeal: "They would have been national heroes, like Shuan White."

Interestingly, for John, the team trials was the biggest race of his life—not the Olympics. He says: "The difference between making the team and not making the team is intense. From this vantage point, you have to balance ego with a frank admission of how much luck is involved. If you want to be an Olympian, most importantly, you better choose the right parents." As for being an Olympian. He claims this has made a major difference in his life, a profound difference. "Humans have two key psychological needs. We want to stand out, and we want to belong to a tribe. Making the team fills both of those needs. There are over 300 million people in this country, but only a few thousand Olympians."

When discussing whether the United States can become a competitive powerhouse again John notes the low profile of racing within American paddlesports. "Purists just want to explore, run rapids and get away. Racing is almost antithetical to the counterculture boater—he or she doesn't want to compete." He notes that it also takes extreme dedication to participate. "You have to drive to races, go to places like NOC to practice, find a racing club, and keep at it. It takes thousands of hours of practice to be competitive, and paddling requires thousands of hours of logistics and driving as well."

John emphasizes the importance of canoe clubs to his competitive career. Canoe clubs, he claims, are vital for development of competitive athletes. For example, Nantahala Racing Club, NOC's hometown canoe club, has actually been recognized as a "Center of Excellence" by USA Canoe/Kayak for its contributions to developing competitive athletes. Eric Hurd is an NRC member representing the US in London in 2012.

Georgia Canoeing Association, Carolina Canoe Club, Atlanta Whitewater Club, Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, and the Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts are additional regional clubs that organize paddling trips, host local paddling sessions and attend competitions. Like these, John's club, even though it was only four people, was critical to keeping him involved and dedicated to his training.

Final Thoughts

This week John wrote about his Olympic experience for NOC's Staff Newsletter, "In the Flow." These comments sum up the experience plus the perspective John's gained over the past forty years:

"Someone once asked me, in the early pre-Olympic days, why I was willing to work so hard in such an obscure sport when (in their view) so little reward was available.  I can now understand that perspective, but at the time the question made no sense to me.  For me, the rewards of finding my passion, of training and improving and being on the fine edge of excellence through hard work, of getting the most out of myself in a difficult pursuit, were so obvious as to need no justification.  For me, winning wasn’t everything, but the pursuit of excellence was and is noble and worthy.  The challenge was to pursue the goal with passion yet with perspective, with humility, and with the ego in check.  Sometimes I would slip into blind selfishness, and be pretty thoughtless to those around me.  It requires maturity I did not have 40 years ago.  Some might say 40 minutes ago, since paying attention remains a life-long endeavor.

Late in my career I discovered that my rewards were multiplied by competing with a partner, and I got extraordinarily lucky in having two perfect partners.  In 1972 I raced with Tom Southworth, who remains my hero and the example of how to compete intensely but with perspective.  From 1975 to 1979 I raced internationally with Gordon Grant, fellow Mondamin and NOC alum, and rediscovered the extraordinary joy of being better with a teammate than I could ever be alone, because sharing the experience made it so much more special.  We were and remain great friends, for which I am extremely grateful.

So, as I watch the athletes in London, I am an unrepentant fan, feeling gripped, cheering, holding my breath, laughing and crying as event after event unfolds.  To them all I would say 'Bravo!  Revel in these moments, good for you.  Remember, you didn’t do this alone.  Your life will be different from now on, and my wish for you is to find a healthy balance of pride, gratitude, and humility.'

1 comment:

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