A Yank Who Makes Waves Greg Barton, the current world champion in the 1,000, hopes to become the first American to win a kayaking gold medal

September 13, 1988

HELLO, THIS IS GREG BARTON. I'LL be gone for an extended leave of
absence to train for the Olympics. . . .''
Call the best kayaker in the U.S. at his office at Fluor-Daniel,
an engineering and construction company in Irvine, Calif., and that's
what you'll hear. Barton, 28 years old and the first American to win
a world championship in kayaking -- one in 1985, two in 1987 --
recorded the message, along with the names of the firm's other
engineers who can help his clients while he is gone. Nick Hofmann is
one of those engineers.
''Greg trained me,'' he says. ''He is very knowledgeable; he knows
more than some of the veteran engineers here. He is very accurate,
very conscientious and very organized. And very modest.''
So modest that Barton's coworkers scarcely know that he trains
year-round for his other specialty -- propelling a 17-foot, 26-pound
shell over water with the fury of a nautical Tasmanian devil. Not
that Barton is in any way a wild man. He is uncommonly quiet and
measured in all things he does -- ''very methodical, totally opposite
from me,'' says his live-in girlfriend and fellow U.S. Olympic
kayaker, Traci Phillips. But Olympic kayaking, which consists of
singles, doubles and fours competition at distances of 500 and 1,000
meters, is so simplistic -- get in the danged boat and go thataway --
that only controlled fury and subtle technique separate the best
athletes, usually by the tiniest of margins. Indeed, a kayak race is
often won by less than a 10th of a second. Barton won his 1,000-meter
world championship last year (he also took the 10,000, a non-Olympic
event) by 3.36 seconds, more than twice the largest margin of victory
in any Olympics since 1956.
Here comes Barton now, paddling his beat-up kayak through the
early-morning haze toward the shore at the Newport Aquatic Center in
Newport Beach, Calif. He has stubble and salt spray on his face, and
his brown hair is a mess. He is out there every morning before work
and every evening after work, sometimes sprinting, sometimes testing
new paddles, sometimes just pushing on for miles to build endurance.
No fans greet him as he arrives onshore, no trainers or managers.
Kayaking is one of those obscure sports the U.S. public hears about
once every four years. If then. In some European countries that's not
the case. Hungary, for instance, boasts 400,000 serious kayakers and
canoeists, while the U.S. has only 600 paddlers registered to enter
national and international events. The American team got its first
paid coach in 1982 -- Pawel Podgorski, who had defected from Poland
two years earlier.
''What's the payoff?'' asks Barton as he lugs his kayak back to
the boathouse. ''Nothing. Just personal satisfaction, seeing if I can
be the best. Beyond that, I just like the feeling of being in a boat
and feeling it accelerate through the water.''
Raised in tiny Homer, Mich., Barton is the son of a pig farmer
with a 2,200- acre spread. ''Farm chores may have helped with my
discipline,'' says Barton. ''Father always rooted us out early. It
wasn't like we could sleep till 11 and watch cartoons.'' But now on
this summer day, Barton has left work and has nothing to do but
prepare for Seoul. His boss has given him his blessing. No American
male has ever won an Olympic gold in kayaking, but Barton is favored
to win the 1,000. He took the bronze in '84, the best any American
had ever done in that event. That didn't make him famous, and it
surely didn't make him rich. To keep food on his table, he ran a
custom-paddle design company from the family farm for two years. Then
he was placed with Fluor-Daniel through the Olympic Job Opportunities
''When I'm done with the Olympics, I'll go back, too,'' he says.
Barton earned his engineering degree, summa cum laude, from Michigan,
and he feels lucky to be able to use his education while pursuing his
athletic goal. ''You almost have to live like a bum to train hard at
kayaking,'' he says. But he shrugs and continues, ''If I were in it
for the money, well, I wouldn't be in it.''
Greg's dad, Mike, grew up on the Maumee River in Ohio and competed
as a young man in marathon canoeing races, events that could last
from several hours to several days. In the late '60s he and his wife,
Kathy, took up mixed- pairs canoeing. ''Every weekend we'd go
canoeing, and we always took the kids,'' says Kathy. ''So they didn't
have much choice -- they could either sit on the bank and watch, or
At one race, the Bartons met Marcia Jones Smoke, the U.S.'s
greatest woman kayaker, winner of 35 national championships and a
bronze medal in the 1964 Olympics. Smoke ran a kayaking camp for kids
in Buchanan, Mich., and before you could say ''J-stroke,'' the Barton
children were enrolled. Bruce, Greg's % older brother, was the best
kayaker in the family for a while, largely because Greg was still
developing. Bruce, now 31, even made the 1976 and '80 Olympic teams,
but he has since retired from racing. Greg, who wrestled in high
school at 119 pounds, slowly began to fill out. Born with clubfeet,
he also became more and more comfortable with a sport that does not
require great leg strength. At 5 ft. 11 in. and 180 pounds, Greg now
has the muscular upper body of a trapeze artist, perched on legs
that, by comparison, seem almost birdlike.
''They fused both my ankles when I was a kid, and the doctors
messed up my feet,'' he says, lifting one of his feet out of the
orthopedic shoes he must wear. ''I don't have much range of motion,
but I run and do everything anybody else does.''
''He never let it keep him down,'' says Kathy, noting that even as
a baby with both feet in casts Greg displayed unusual athletic
prowess. ''He could creep faster than any baby I've ever seen.''
Is Barton's top-heavy body an advantage in this strong-arm sport?
''Of course,'' says Podgorski, ''you're looking for a power-to-weight
ratio such as he has. But the main thing that makes him really good
is his life discipline.''
Another plus is Barton's analytical mind. He was salutatorian of
his high school class, and he scored a perfect 800 in math on the
SAT. In addition to training hard and having a strong body, a kayaker
also must have good technique and the unteachable ability to sense
when he is pushing through the water with minimum resistance. ''It's
not who trains the hardest, but who trains the smartest,'' says
Barton, who does both.
Since winning the 1,000-meter singles at the Olympic trials in
Indianapolis in June, Barton has been on the racing circuit in
preparation for Seoul. He and Traci have moved out of their small
apartment and put everything they own into storage. ''I had to give
up the apartment because I couldn't afford it,'' says Barton. ''It
was $700 a month.'' He sighs the sigh of the real amateur. ''When we
come back, we'll just have to look for a new place.''
Maybe if Barton returns with a gold medal around his neck, he'll
get a break from a Los Angeles landlord. Maybe not. Oh well. He has
been up the creek before, which is why he has a paddle.