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Olympic Moments

2:30 PM, Feb 8, 2014 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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I met The Hammer socially on occasion, most memorably at three o’clock one morning when he and Suicide, ever on the lookout for sport, were hurling chairs, wastebaskets, and other loose objects the length of the dormitory hallway, where they crashed against the wall right outside my room.  The young guns were howling with the fullness of the moment.  Perturbed by the disturbance, I came out, examined the scene, and made an appropriate remark, which The Hammer construed as a highly inappropriate remark.  He advanced toward me, evidently bent on chastisement, his gait deliberate if a bit unsteady.  I happened to be, of all things, a hammer thrower on the freshman track and field team, was easily stronger than ninety-five out of a hundred men, and had a couple inches and a solid thirty pounds on The Hammer, whom I was ready to throw back where he came from.  But then Suicide came sprinting rubber-legged past his companion, locked me in a bear hug, and screamed in my ear, “Are you crazy?  Are you crazy?  Go back to bed.  He’ll destroy you.”  From twenty feet away and closing, The Hammer eyed me with maniacal glee. It was the look with which a lord among men expresses his pity for and amusement at his obvious inferior before he snaps his spine in half.  Suddenly prudent, I averted my gaze, as one is instructed to do when happening upon a grizzly in the wild, or being inspected while snorkeling by an eight-foot bull shark.  Back to bed: a fine idea.  The crashing outside my door did not continue for more than another hour or two, and I fell asleep again before the sun came up. The next time I saw Eric Evans he seemed to have no recollection of that evening; but perhaps the lapse in memory was simple noblesse oblige.

On the roughest water going, Evans was no mere aristocrat; he was sporting royalty.  When it was announced that whitewater kayak would be an Olympic event, there was no question but that he would be the leading American medal hope.  And even just to see him go for the gold there would be immense excitement for his friends and acquaintances.

Not many people get excited about whitewater kayaking. This was not one of the banner events of the Games, and the relatively sparse turnout was mostly young men, likely a mix of practitioners, aficionados, and friends of friends, as at a recital of late 20th century chamber music.  There was plenty of elbow room on the banks of the artificial watercourse; the action was right there.  The stream was only slightly too wide to spit across, but all the energy of fast water was focused to a concentrated rage, like a blast from a fire hose.  Only the best at the game could dare accept this challenge without immediate regret.  Whitewater kayakers compete on a slalom course, maneuvering around gates that dangle above the water on arms extending from the shore.  The adepts treat the run as a technical problem, to be solved by artfulness born of experience that reads the water as a master builder does a blueprint, but ultimately conquered only by phenomenal brute strength applied with the utmost efficiency.  It’s like a chess game conducted against a merciless rapid-fire clock, in which the pieces are tall as a man and weigh 250 pounds apiece and the players must hurl them from space to space. 

If only they knew: the spectacle was more exciting by far than watching men run around in large circles or hurl heavy implements through the air.  The element of serious danger always provides that primordial slap to the back of the head; a wrong move and even the most expert kayaker can be upended for an uncomfortably long time, or find his skull bouncing off a boulder.  Daring as gymnasts, powerful as wrestlers, relentless as oarsmen, these were athletes impressive as any at the Games. 

Most of the racers gasped and grimaced with the strain of the hardest physical trial they had ever faced.  The Hammer hammered away, obviously demanding of himself every bit of strength and will he had.  He was known for this sort of peerless effort.  He took pride that nobody worked harder than he did, and he always faced down pain and fear like a hero, if fear really figured in the picture at all for him. 

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