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Kayaking Makes Rapid Progress

Since the introduction of plastic boats in the '70s, the sport has exploded, observers say. WHITE WATER

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``Risk,'' says May, ``is the vehicle for putting people in the moment.''

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Every kayaking instructor interviewed for this series stressed the need for safety and preparation, a point brought home by a tragic incident during this reporter's visit to NOC: Two canoeists unaffiliated with the center capsized above the falls. One of them became trapped in the rocks and drowned before rescuers could free him.

Charles Walbridge, safety chairman for the American Canoe Association, says there are from six to eight kayak-related drownings each year, including flat-water and white-water boating.

While participants acknowledge the risks, they maintain that precautions minimize the danger.

``You can control the environment to make it safe ... there's only a small risk if you do it properly,'' says Billy (BR) Richards, a former attorney now in his ninth year as an NOC instructor.

Simple rules of river safety can avert many accidents, experts say. Kayaking properly means not only knowing the sport, but knowing your limits, general river dangers, and the characteristics of the specific river you're on. An inviting stretch of river may hide obstacles in unexpected places - obstacles that may even cause a current to suddenly turn upstream, a switch that can flip an unsuspecting boater.

Can anyone kayak? ``Absolutely!'' says Mr. Richards. ``If you can get through an aerobics class, you can do it.''

Kayaking requires mostly the use of waist and hips, making it ``not a strength sport, but a finesse sport,'' says Lisa Chaple, a fifth-year RMOC instructor. ``Men are more likely to just get out and power through like other physical sports,'' she says, but ``women learn better than men.'' Women may excel in this sport currently dominated by men, says Ms. Chaple.

An investment in kayaking involves more than just time on the river. A new boat runs about $700, and with the additional necessary gear - paddle, spray skirt, life jacket, and helmet - the cost can run well over $1,000. A complete used package can often be found in the $600-$700 range. Rentals are scarce because of liability concerns.

The future of the sport is considerably brightened by the inclusion of white-water kayaking as an official event at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. That means funding from the US Olympic Committee, potential corporate sponsors, and publicity. Flat-water racing has been an official event since 1936, but whitewater has been included only once before, in the 1972 Games in Munich, West Germany.

The problem has been finding a proper venue, says Leslie Klein, assistant executive director for the US Canoe and Kayak Team. That was the case in Los Angeles in 1984. In Barcelona, water will be diverted from a river through a man-made, concrete course.

With Olympic recognition, can kayaking as a spectator sport be far behind? Last year the world championships for white-water slalom were held in the US for the first time. And in another first for the sport, $75,000 in prize money will be offered in a privately sponsored international competition this year. First in a three-part series. Tomorrow: A trip down the river.