You’ve got to wonder how a guy gets into competitive kayaking. “My dad was in the foreign service when I was little, and we spent a few years in Nepal,” says Norman Bellingham, 27. “He bought a navy surplus raft left over from the Vietnam war, and we decided to do some white-water rafting on our treks around Asia.”
Something about the sport clicked with Bellingham. “I was a young fanatic,” he says. He jammed in junior high, in Rockville, Maryland, placing well in local competitions. “Everything was kayaking.”
Sometimes, fanaticism pays off.Bellingham made it to the 1984 Olympics, was the U.S. National Champion in 1987 and 1988 in the single-man 500-meter event and nailed the gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in the two-man 1000 meters. And while competing internationally, he got the nod from Harvard, where he is now a senior.
Despite his athletic success, Bellingham says: “I’m more known for doing a Gap ad with Annie Leibovitz than for winning the gold in ’88. But all athletes are natural hams. We talk about excellence, but there’s something wonderful about glory. I want to win at the Olympics, and fame just makes the roses smell that much sweeter.”
“I was just drafted onto the Nuprin comeback team,” says Wendy Williams. “That’s pretty appropriate, judging from my past year.”
Indeed, 1991 was a rough ride for the twenty-four-year-old diver. After peaking with a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics, a world championship in 1989 and a championship in the 1990 Olympic festival, Williams started to fall. “I burned myself out,” she says. “My body rebelled.” her double dose of troubles included a near-crippling bulging disk in her back, coupled with recurring bouts of chronic fatigue immune dysfunction.
Now that she can touch her toes with a minimum of pain, Williams is making sure she enjoys the ride. “I’ve had to learn to slow down,” she says.”When I can relax and enjoy slicing through the water without so much as a splash, it’s heaven. I feel like I’m flying. It’s the ultimate rush.”
“I’ve always loved fencing,” says Stanford junior and 1991 U.S. National champion Nick Bravin. “To win you have to outthink your opponent without letting your technical skills falter. It’s kind of like a combination of tennis and boxing.”
The twenty-year-old resident of Los Angeles cringes at the mention of Errol Flynn, or worse, Robin Hood. “The swashbuckling image of fencing is way off,” he says. “Those guys in white turtlenecks who duel in the movies to prove their honor look ridiculous. It kills me.”
Which is not to say that this fencer, who is planning not only to go to Barcelona but to win the gold in the 1996 Olympics, is bereft of attitude, “I think I have always done well because of my inbred cockiness,” Bravin says. “But I’ve worked my butt off, too. I have literally spent the last nine years with a foil in my hand.”
Location is everything. “The guy who invented the trampoline lived down the street,” says Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native Kent Ferguson, “So I spent my childhood bouncing up and down. But i realized pretty quickly that tramps were dangerous, So I hit the water.” Fleeing harm placed Ferguson Smack in the middle of a sport he’s perfectly suited for: diving, He’s tall, lean and strong, and his gymnast’s training translated easily to the pool. He’s known success for nearly a decade – from landing a first place in the 1984 NCAA championships to his current status as five-time U.S. Springboard champion. But the Olympics have remained an elusive prize for Ferguson.
In 1984, he placed third at the Olympic trials, but only the top two divers were invited to the games. On his first dive at the 1988 Olympic trials, Ferguson’s shoulder separated; again he finished third. “My life was a mess,” he says. “I couldn’t move my arm. It was, like, major revelation time.”
After nearly six months off, he cut the ten-meter dive from his repertoire and focused on the three-meter Springboard. Since then, Ferguson has heard success pounding on his door. He was recently named a finalist for the Sullivan award, and he brought home the gold in both the 1991 pan American games and the 1991 world championships. “I’ve done everything in my sport except for hearing the national anthem playing behind me at the Olympics,” the twenty-nine-year-old says. “That’s the Pinnacle. I dream about it.”