Four years ago, Chris Spelius came within a splash of winning a place on the US Olympic kayak team. The Deerfield, Ill., paddler, 28 years old at the time, was tied for the eighth and last place, but lost out in a run-off.
''I felt really bad, really devastated,'' Spelius recalls. ''It was about the most emotional moment of my life.
''So I just said right then, 'Next time 'round, I'm not going to be fighting for the last spot.' ''
Ironically, though, that's exactly what happened. But this time Spelius overcame a horrendous start in the four-day competiton and just managed to pull into eighth place on the final day.
It was another close call, but the Spelius style has never been to shoot straight to the top like a meteor. For one reason or another, the 6 ft. 4 in., 200-lb. athlete has always had his share of struggles. The secret of his success is that he never gives up.
''When I started this sport, I looked at it and said, 'I'm as strong and as fit as any of those guys. I'll get on that kayak, figure out what you have to do , and get in shape.' It seemed really simple to me,'' Spelius recalls.
''Never, ever was I prepared for the technical difficulty that's involved. I had no idea. And that technical aspect of it hasn't come particularly easy - not at all.''
Spelius, a swimmer at the University of Utah, began kayaking in 1975 on the Colorado River. Originally a white water paddler with a reputation for negotiating turbulent, swollen rivers, he came East with a friend in 1976 and successfully ran the treacherous Niagara Gorge. The next year he became a river guide in North Carolina and also started leading white water trips on Chile's fabled Bio-Bio River. He also developed a taste for white water racing as opposed to the flat water Olympic variety.
Spelius went to an Olympic training camp in Florida in 1978, however, ostensibly to improve his forward stroke by picking up some tips from flat water paddlers.
''In Olympic racing, how you paddle forward is the most important thing, and I thought it would really apply to white water racing, too,'' Spelius explains. He admits, however, that in the back of his mind, he probably was starting to dream the Olympic dream.
''We really hit it off,'' says Bill Bragg, US Olympic kayak coach. ''I liked his attitude and the way he was going about it.''
Although the possibility of getting on the team was remote, Spelius began working out on his own. And even though he eventually missed out, the training paid off two years later when he competed for the 1982 US team in the world kayak championship in Belgrade.
Spelius was impressed with the performance of the New Zealanders, who he says are probably the best kayakers in the free world. So with the US kayaking situation in something of an upheaval at the time, Chris, with the approval of Bragg, spent six months training with the New Zealand team in that country.
''I never worked as hard as I did down there, never - seven days a week, two workouts a day, sometimes three workouts a day counting the weights, and no letup,'' he said. ''I came back to our (1983) trials and I was . . . slower than the year before - after all that work.
''I think I was over-trained and really tired. I thought I could make the team without peaking, so I hadn't done any speed work. See, this is a sprint sport still. I didn't realize by paddling long and hard and slow, you end up going slow even though you're more fit.''
Spelius was allowed to train with the world team anyway at the Lake Placid, N.Y., Olympic Training Center. He regained his confidence in July by winning three gold medals and a silver at the National Sports Festival in Colorado Springs. Then he placed third in the 500-, 1,000-, and 10,000-meter races at the nationals in August, and also did well in the Pan-American Games.
Convinced that he was finally responding to the work done months ago in New Zealand, Spelius went back last fall for five more months. This time, he worked smarter, not harder. As competition time neared, he cut back on training time and increased the intensity of his effort.
A popular recreational sport in this country, kayaking hasn't generated the amount of spectator excitement that it elicits in Europe, where crowds line the river banks even for local sprint races.
Introduced 60 years ago as a demonstration sport in the Paris Olympics, flat water kayaking became an official sport in 1936. White water kayaking has been held only once in the Olympics - at Munich in 1972.
The United States has won only three medals in all that time - one silver and two bronzes - but should have its best shot in years at L.A. thanks to the Soviet boycott. In the last three Olympics, the Russians and East Germans have won the lion's share of medals, so with those countries staying home, the chances for wide open, down-to-the wire competition in Los Angeles look pretty good. That would be fine with Chris Spelius, who is used to the pressure of those close finishes by now.