The 2014 C&K Award for Lifetime Achievement: Jamie McEwan

View and read Lecky Haller's moving remembrance of his late friend and Olympic partner

Canoe & Kayak magazine presented its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award to slalom canoe and expedition legend Jamie McEwan, who died in June after a courageous bout with cancer. His longtime friend and Olympic C-2 partner Lecky Haller accepted the award on his behalf Aug. 7 at the C&K Awards in Salt Lake City. A video of Haller’s moving remembrance is posted above, together with an introduction by 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Rob Lesser. The text of Haller’s speech is below. –Eds.

By Lecky Haller

When Jeff called me a week ago to tell me about this award, it came as no surprise that a man of Jamie McEwan’s stature in the world of canoeing and kayaking should have such an honor bestowed upon him.

Since it’s impossible for the man himself to accept this award, then who could possibly step in to represent him? There are many others really that are way more qualified than I to accept this honor on his behalf.

His soulmate, Sandra Boynton tops this list. The story is told of their first meeting as being less than auspicious. They were students in the same drama class at Yale. Sandra’s mother told her that she just had to meet the Olympian! Sandy’s response was something like, “Oh mom, he’s probably just some stuck up dumb jock!” Of course she was wrong on all counts.

Sandra has proved to be the equal of Jamie since the very beginning. Here’s a small story about that: Jamie made a bet with Sandy their first summer together about who could earn more over the summer. Jamie had already secured a job with the admissions department at Yale university. Sandy would peddle her funny animal drawings on the streets of New York City. We all know who won this contest of course, as she continues to scare large corporations with her Whimsical and fantastic ideas.

Both of these remarkably talented humans more than complimented each other, eventually raising four equally talented children. Sandra then would be the perfect person to accept this accolade in her doppelgängers absence. We must, however, accept her position. She is simply not ready yet.

So, it is up to me. I suppose I am an acceptable substitute after all I spent six years yoked to this super human.

McEwan threads his C-1 slalom boat through a narrow slot during an early descent of the Rio Santa Maria, Mexico in 1985. Photo by Wick Walker.

McEwan threads his C-1 slalom boat through a narrow slot during an early descent of the Rio Santa Maria, Mexico in 1985. Photo by Wick Walker.

Paddling C-2 may be a bit like having paddling buddies and partners that you trust on the hardest most remote rivers. The kind of trust and friendships you build with these partners over many years might give you a hint about what it is to paddle a C-2 at the highest level. I suggest though that the magic that lies therein can only be explained if you have done it. Both of you are in the same boat trying to weave a mosaic down a river, not side by side or following each other, but in the same boat trying to create a synchronous dance on the water.

When I jumped into the back of the boat with Jamie in 1986, I had five years in that craft having paddled with my brother Fritz. Jamie was in a sense a rookie, though an Olympian. He was like a little kid with a new toy. This was quite a different experience for me as well. I was teaching my hero, every slalom paddler’s hero, yet he looked up to me as the World Champion. At the same time I was awed to be in the same boat as Americas only whitewater Olympic medalist at the time.

Somehow it all worked. Coming into the 87 world championships Jamie asked me every few weeks how I thought we stacked up internationally. We were improving by leaps and bounds as he metamorphosed from a top C-1 to a world class C-2 Bowman. About a week before we left for France he asked me again. I said I thought we could be in the medals. That he accepted that opinion without question amazed me. When we arrived in Bourg St. Maurice and the huge water of the Isere River, I began to have my doubts. I’m not the greatest in big water, but Jamie was so confident in it that he infected me too. Of course I could always just hide behind him a lot of the time and close my eyes!

McEwan (bow) and Haller in their competitive heyday.

McEwan (bow) and Haller in their competitive heyday.

The success we had together in the boat was amazing. We stood on many international podiums, won a silver at the worlds and won the World Cup in 1988.

Though my brother Fritz as the Olympic coach for the C-2 class in 1992 likes to say that he coached us down to fourth place in Barcelona, the truth was we had a magical run. The other three boats were just a little bit better. It’s hard to admit that when you have dedicated your life to this level of competition. One of the many lessons I learned from Jamie is to let that go. To feel good about a really good performance even if you don’t win the race.

Although Jamie credited me with the slogan “half of life is showing up” in truth it was the way he loved his life and his attitude about cherishing every moment that led me to believe in that notion wholeheartedly!

Jamie was as Renaissance man as you can get in this day and age. He was an everything boater: a river runner, a racer, a play boater, an expedition boater. He was much more than that though. He was a husband and father, he was a mentor to many, he was a coach.

Not only did he inspire the DC kids to go out and challenge the European dominated slalom world but he set up his own training center in Connecticut and invited racers to come live in his river house and train with him to help nurture this budding sport. Countless people have been touched by the benevolent hand of Jamie McEwan or inspired by his ready smile.

Did I mention that Jamie was a renaissance man? He was a wrestler and a son and a brother. He was a published author and a bread maker. He was a dog lover a boat designer and cross country skier. He started the Hacks, the Housatonic area canoe and kayak squad, composed of many top racers and yes an equal number of HACKS. Such was the humor that ran rampant in the McEwan-Boynton household with constant plays on words and innuendos, pure fun. He was a swimsuit calendar model a world traveler and sometimes a bit naive.

McEwan in Bhutan in 1981. The team cut their boats into three pieces to get them onto the plane, then reassembled them and put up four first descents in the Himalayan kingdom.

McEwan in Bhutan in 1981. The team cut their boats into three pieces to get them onto the plane, then reassembled them and put up four first descents in the Himalayan kingdom.

In the early 90′s we took a trip after the racing season to the Soviet Union with a handful of other international athletes to do an athlete exchange with the soviets. We ended up high in the caucuses in soviet Georgia on some wild rivers with the most innovative paddlers you have ever seen. Jamie and I became brothers with the C-2 family of soviet athletes. When it came time to leave we were sequestered in a tower room with the c-2 brotherhood and out came the vodka. It had to have been 500 proof and we were each handed a teacup filled to the brim. I knew we were in trouble. At each toast I was able to slight of hand it over the shoulder or between the legs. Jamie didn’t seem to have a clue. As I helped him to the bus down the rickety back steps he was hurtin’ and said how can you walk so straight? I said,”are you kidding Jamie? You can’t drink that stuff, it’s one step away from radiator fluid.” For such an academic and intelligent guy he could sometimes be amazingly aloof to reality.

Jamie was also a fighter, humble but with the necessary arrogance it took to do what he did. Most of all he was a great friend.

Thanks to Canoe & Kayak magazine we are able to recognize a special person for a lifetime of accomplishment and service to our little way of life. We honor him tonight for all of the things he has done for paddling in his lifetime. We honor him for the way he lived his life and the lives he touched.

I didn’t see Jamie as much as I should have over the last twenty years but we kept in touch by email and talked on the phone. We developed a way of signing off that I think I got from being associated with the Sandy Boynton school of word play.

So, for the last time I will say goodbye in this way,

Jamie, “I bow sternly to you and your wonderful life! And accept this award on your behalf!”

Jamie McEwan (in stern) with son Devin at the 2005 U.S. Slalom Trials. McEwan, who won Olympic bronze at 19, is 51 in the photograph. He remained a world class slalom racer until his cancer diagnosis in 2009. Photo by Kyle Boynton.

Jamie McEwan (in stern) with son Devin at the 2005 U.S. Slalom Trials. McEwan, who won Olympic bronze at 19, is 51 in the photograph. He remained a world class slalom racer until his cancer diagnosis in 2009. Photo by Kyle Boynton.

Lecky Haller, right, with 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Rob Lesser at the 2014 C&K Awards. Lesser presented the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Jamie McEwan. Haller, McEawan's longtime C-2 partner, accepted the award on McEwan's behalf.

Lecky Haller, right, with 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Rob Lesser at the 2014 C&K Awards. Lesser presented the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award to the late Jamie McEwan. Haller, McEwan’s longtime C-2 partner, accepted the award on McEwan’s behalf.

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  • Tony Volpe

    I met Jamie briefly many years ago at T – Ville in Conn. I was a Hack C – 1er paddling with the Boston chapter of the AMC. I had just bought a new High Performance C -1 with a newly designed rotomolded seat . A young man approached me and started to inquire about its fit and feel and performance . I could tell he was dying to try it and he impressed me with his easy going manner and friendly personality , so I offered it to him to try . We were standing at the play holes just above the old dam and he got in and put on such an incredible display of control and technique I was awed and entertained as he gave the boat a thorough test run . When he finished about 10 -15 min later , he thanked me and introduced himself ,and of course it all made sense . He had just won the bronze medal at the Olympics in the C-1 class and I had seen it on the ” Wild World of Sports ” . I was never able to get that boat to approach anywhere near the level he paddled it to that day , but I always remembered him as an inspirational and humble young man . I am sorry to hear of his passing . He certainly deserves the award given to him .

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