For Samir Karabasic, the road to the Olympic Summer Games was pocked with craters from mortar rounds and strewn with live landmines.
But the Bosnian kayaker and his war-honed survival skills faced yet another test after he arrived in the US as his country's first-ever whitewater Olympian.
His boat sank.
As Mr. Karabasic navigated through the Olympic whitewater course on a practice run, his only kayak - a second-hand craft held together by duct tape - disintegrated.
Hearing of his plight, American Scott Shipley, the sport's World Cup champion, gave him a $1,500 cherry-red kayak - the one Shipley used to win the United States team trials in May.
For Karabasic, who trained on rivers passing through battlegrounds and survived a harrowing helicopter ride to get here, Shipley's gesture embodies the Olympic spirit of international friendship. Karabasic's coach
was so moved by Shipley's generosity that he says he'll be rooting for the American when the competition begins today.
"He's a good man," Karabasic says through an interpreter at Lee College in Cleveland, Tenn., site of the Olympic Village for the whitewater athletes. "He heard about [what happened] and said he'd like to donate the boat. That's a good boat, a really good one."
Mr. Shipley, an easy-going man with a ready smile, is modest about his gift. "There's nothing worse than being at the starting gate and not knowing whether you can make it down the river," he says. "It's the Olympics. Nothing should get in the way, and this will mean more to him than me. I'm really impressed by him and all he's been through."
Karabasic, who has been kayaking his country's rivers since he was 10, stopped in 1992 when his hometown of Bihac was surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces.
He joined the Bosnian government army and spent the next three years on the front line. "You're saving your energy to just barely walk and survive," he says. "We didn't have food, ammunition, electricity. The training was the least that I was thinking about."
But in January 1995, during the hardest attacks on Bihac, the main kayaking organization in Sarajevo asked Karabasic and three of his friends to represent the country in its Olympic bid. Karabasic spent the next three months trying to train, as the group waited for safe travel out of the city. "I literally switched guns with a paddle," he says. "From that point I started training constantly whenever I had time. Sometimes the situation wasn't so good due to the war."
Then in April, Karabasic and the other kayakers boarded a helicopter in the darkness of the early morning for a dangerous flight over Bosnian Serb territory. They made it safely, but the same helicopter was shot down several days later, killing the Bosnian foreign minister.
The kayakers set up shop in Slovenia, traveling to World Cup and World Championship competitions in Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, and England. Karabasic, who had the best results, was chosen to begin training for the Olympic trials. He returned to Bihac, now free, and then traveled to the Ocoee River where in April he qualified to represent Bosnia at the 1996 Games.
Before the war, kayaking was a popular sport in Bosnia. The country boasted 30 kayaking clubs and more than 2,000 boats, Karabasic says. Now, after years of shelling, only 20 boats remain, and many kayakers have died.
Finding the money to buy equipment was a challenge. Karabasic and his coach, Senad Zulic, collected money from people and companies in Bihac who were able to donate what little they could afford.
Shipley, who has been kayaking since he was about six, understands the expense of the sport. Kayaks can cost $2,000, and top athletes replace them up to three times a year. (Shipley himself has two kayaks in addition to the one he gave Karabasic.) Moreover, major competitions, which occur all over the world, require athletes to shell out money for traveling and lodging.
"It's a lesson in budgeting," says Shipley, who once lived in a treehouse in British Columbia and camped out in Europe in order to continue competing. During the early '90s, the American made it on about $10,000 a year - $5,000 given from the United States Olympic Committee, and the rest in prize money. Now, however, he says he is lucky because he is supplied and supported by such sponsors as Dagger Canoe Co. and Adidas.
Shipley says the kayak he gave Karabasic will allow him to compete on a level playing field. "He's very athletic; he's at the middle of the pack," Shipley says. "For what he's been through, that's pretty phenomenal."
Karabasic says he's getting used to the kindness of people in the US. This spring, the Bosnian Olympic team spent a month living with families in Pell City, Ala. "They took care of us, fed us, gave us presents," he says. "It was fabulous. That shows that American people are really nice to Bosnians, and we were amazed by such hospitality."
Mr. Zulic, Karabasic's coach, agrees. And he's pulling for Shipley to win the gold medal. "He should be the first one because behind him are a lot of years of training and the results," Zulic says.