Industry and Nature Cooperate To Create Olympic-Level Course

INDUSTRY and nature have come together here in one roaring good time for a handful of canoe and kayak paddlers.

The Potomac River's white-water rapids between here and Washington, D.C., have bred a corps of the world's best canoe and kayak racers - almost half of this year's United States Olympic paddling team is from the Potomac area.

But racers like Jon Lugbill, a five-time world champion canoeist who dug his first paddle into the Potomac years ago, had always enviously eyed the powerful cascade of water spilling out onto the river here from beneath the giant smokestacks of the Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company) 700-megawatt generating station.

"We always used to dream about the channel, but I never thought the lawyers would go for it," says Bill Endicott, a former Capitol Hill staffer who is now coach of the US Olympic team competing in Spain this summer.

In what may go down in the books as a miraculous case of red-tape snipping, considering the danger and liability involved, Pepco said yes when local paddlers asked last September about using the concrete spillway as an Olympic training course.

"We could have very easily said no to someone saying, `Hey, we want to play around on your outflow canal.' But they kept saying the word Olympics and talking about turning it into a world-class facility," says Pepco spokesman Steve Arabia.

Pepco engineers sat local paddlers down to "play" with an $80,000 scale model of the 1,000-foot canal and design where to place obstacles.

"We tried to simulate the Hulk Falls in Spain [on the artificial Olympic course]," says Mr. Lugbill, an environmental planner when he isn't muscling his way up and down white-water waves.

Before Thanksgiving, Pepco poured and formed 75 multiple-ton concrete boulders and placed them on the spillway with giant cranes. What would have cost $2 million to create from scratch cost $300,000, most of which was donated by Pepco and area contractors.

The quick construction effectively gave the Olympic team an extra season, says Mr. Endicott. The team was able to practice through the freezing winter months because the water coming off the massive, hot, condenser pipes of the plant is 20 degrees warmer than the river water. The constant pounding flow of water is criss-crossed from above with wiring for slalom gates.

Now in the final weeks of training before the Aug. 1 and 2 Olympic events, Endicott places the gates over tough eddies, where paddlers must pass through - downstream or upstream.

Endicott, who himself was a world-class canoe paddler in the early 1970s and has written five books on the subject, explains that artificial courses are more difficult than natural rivers for paddlers.

"The gates represent fallen trees and places you can't go. A normal river scoops out the bank. But here you have irregular pulsating surges bouncing off the concrete, it's unpredictable," he says, pointing to the roil.

One at a time, paddlers flit down the white water as Endicott bellows times and instructions over the roar through a mini-megaphone strapped to his head. A good time on the 1,000-foot course - without penalties for touching the gates - is about 2 minutes.

Paddlers are sealed into their boats by spray skirts. Kayakers use a double-bladed paddle. A single-bladed paddle is used for the decked canoes, which are manned in a kneeling position.

On a practice run, Lugbill takes his canoe over the first falls, pivoting around gates by planting his paddle in the water and leveraging the boat with his hips and thighs. As he flits from gate to gate, his paddle strokes seem to sweep him as effortlessly upstream against the torrent as they do downstream.

"This course and the weather here, when you add it all together, make the Potomac the best training site in the world," says Lugbill.

He and other US teammates have captured the top three spots in world championships every year since 1979.

The US team is expected to take much of the glory this summer in the first white-water events held at the Olympics since 1972.

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