By Eugene Buchanan
When the World Slalom Championships come to Maryland Sept. 17-21, they'll be returning to a site just a throw rope away from their debut in the U.S. 25 years ago on the Savage River. It was then in 1989 that all eyes were on 28-year-old C-1 phenom Jon Lugbill, who won his unprecedented fifth individual World Championships gold medal with “one of the greatest slalom runs of all time.” We caught up with the only paddler to ever appear on a Wheaties cereal box for his take on his winning run and the return of the Worlds to U.S. waters.
C&K: They're calling your second run “one of the greatest slalom runs of all time.” Do you agree?
Lugbill: No, not really. My race at the Savage was a very good run on a very big stage in front of my home country. It seemed bigger than it was. The announcers certainly do a good job of getting amped up as well. I think the current top paddlers are much better than I was back in 1989.
How special was it for the Worlds to be held on the Savage?
It was very special. The huge crowds. The beautiful river. The national TV coverage. It was quite surreal. I remember being at the Savage in the fall of 1975 and racing with no crowds and we all camped at the race site. It was a remote and very intimate event. To return 14 years later and have the Worlds there was just really special.
What was going through your head at the start of your winning run?
I was really focused. I had planned out the run I had. I worked really hard at the Savage Worlds to remove distractions and to focus on my own performance. The other paddlers, media and crowds were all pretty removed from my mind. I was focused on my task and ready to enjoy it.
Your first run was 12 seconds faster than anyone else's, already good enough to win the gold, but you didn't know it. Did that help you go faster the second run?
Absolutely. I had a lot of pressure to win the World Championships on U.S. soil in my home state. There was tons of media coverage and the pressure of winning a fifth world title was pretty great. All of that stress was released when my first run went well. I was able to get away from the crowds and just focus on putting it all together for my second run. I knew I could do a lot better and I wanted to perform my best. Everyone wants to do their best at the World Championships, and have it pushes everyone else.
What were your two times?
I think I was 212 on my first run and 205 on my second.
The announcers said you went "slow" through gates 21 and 22 the first run, and might've hit gate 24 too low. Is that what you felt, and were you focusing on those gates on your second run?
I did this really slow bow pivot move on the first run between 21 and 22. It cost me a couple of seconds. Upstream on the left, at gate 24, I had been a little low in the gate on my first run. There was a rock in the eddy that you hit with your paddle coming into it. It was very tricky to be in the right spot, nail the move, go fast and not break your paddle or trip over it.
You had already won four individual World golds, and this was number five. Did that put added pressure on you?
Yes. It's always hard to win a World Championships. But my technique was perfectly suited for the Savage. This gave me an enormous amount of confidence. I really didn't mess up my training runs that often there. It builds confidence to know that you can perform on the river where the Worlds will be held. And I was very healthy. I was very fast in practice, and I was very prepared. This helped relieve the pressure.
Who were your biggest threats back then?
The Americans were the big rivals, along with the French paddlers. Also, Martin Hedges from Great Britain was also a top competitor. But really it was Americans David Hearn, Jed Prentice and Bob Robison that were the biggest threats. They were used to the Savage as well, were used to racing with me, and had high ambitions themselves.
What are your thoughts about the Worlds returning to Maryland, and the state of slalom in the U.S. today?
I'm excited that the World Championships are coming back to Maryland. But I think that slalom racing has diminished significantly over the past 25 years in the U.S. Looking back, we were extremely fortunate to have a very intense, small group of dedicated athletes led by a very dynamic leader—Bill Endicott. The rise of the U.S. as a world power in paddling corresponded with the arrival of Bill as our national team coach and the demise of our program pretty much corresponds to his not being part of the National Team. Bill's leadership skills, work ethic and drive to excel has proven to be more valuable to my personal development than I could have ever imagined. I'm sure the other paddlers from my generation would agree that he had an extremely positive impact on their paddling careers as well as their life after paddling. For the U.S. to return to our glory days in paddling, we need a new leader like Bill.