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Barton Hopes to Put the Paddle to Medal : ’84 Bronze Medalist Working Quietly Toward Gold in ’88

Times Staff Writer

Greg Barton didn’t become an Olympic kayaker to be famous, which is a good thing, since he’s not.

That bronze medal in the 1,000-meter singles, a little memento from his stay at the 1984 Summer Games? You never heard of it. Those shoulders, the width of the family Buick? Nice--and what football team does he play for?

Barton is a best-kept secret, all right. If he’s lucky, NBC may aim a camera his way long enough in Seoul to catch him paddling for another precious medal, this time gold. He’s considered the favorite in the 1,000-meter event, what with his first-place showing in both the 1,000- and 10,000-meter races last year in the World Championships at Duisburg, West Germany.

He is this perfect combination of strength and technique, say those associated with the sport, and yet, an unknown in his own country, maybe in his own county, which is none other than Orange.

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Raised in Jackson, Mich., a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan, Barton lives in Newport Beach, where he works as a mechanical engineer for the Fluor Corp. They know him at Fluor only because he’s the guy who doesn’t wear one of those plastic pocket pen-holders. That, and he’s the only one there with an Olympic medal.

Barton doesn’t mind the anonymity. Given his choice between appearing on a box of Wheaties or paddling quietly on a glassy lake, Barton probably would choose the lake. Solitude is part of the sport, not 8 x 10 public relations glossies.

Wait, he takes that back. Overseas, where they do know Barton from Barstow, he receives requests for autographed photos. “That’s real popular over there,” said Barton, who at the time was in Lake Placid, N.Y., preparing for the Games. “They collect autographs of Olympic athletes.”

Meanwhile, back in the States, Barton is the invisible man. It’s not as if the people at the National Paddling Committee, the acting governing body for Olympic canoe-kayak flat-water events, aren’t trying. But the pickings are slim. For instance, who is say, Kodak, going to want: gymnast Phoebe Mills or the little-known Barton?

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“Here’s this guy who’s a double world champion and nobody knows it,” said Maureen Boyle of the NPC. “But he’s a hero in Europe.”

On Boyle’s desk this very moment are letters from kayak fans in West Germany. They’d like to know if they can please get a mug of Barton and a signature, if it’s not too much trouble.

But approach an apparel company about Barton, as Boyle has done, or a sunglasses manufacturer, and it’s the cold shoulder. Banquets? Speaking engagements? Endorsements? “He doesn’t get asked,” Boyle said.

Barton also doesn’t take it personally. He didn’t start paddling for the bucks, but for that moment when the kayak, the water and the motor of sorts--Barton--are one.

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“Really, a lot of my goals are for myself, to see what I can do,” he said. “I like competing. I enjoy doing it. I knew when I started the sport that it wasn’t well known. A lot of people in the United States haven’t heard of Olympic kayaking.”

If they have, they think they saw it on last week’s National Geographic episode on PBS. Something about the dangers of kayaking on the Colorado River.

“Nobody cares to know about it,” Boyle said. “It’s been hard because it’s such an obscure sport. When people think about kayaking-- if they think about it--they think it’s white-water kayaking.”

Actually, kayaking has been an Olympic sport since 1924. But it wasn’t until recently that the United States began to attract some attention. It’s mostly because of Barton and Olympic Coach Paul Podgorski, the one-time Polish national coach who has helped the United States improve from an 18th-place finish at the 1981 World Championships to a 4th-place showing last year.

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“I would say that the U.S. is probably still a little bit of an underdog,” Barton said. “The real powerhouses are the Eastern Bloc countries.”

Barton has a chance to alter the balance, however little. First is his slight advantage on the newly constructed course in Seoul. Generally, the kayakers will be paddling into the wind, which should help Barton, who depends on his endurance, not his starts, to help win races. He has the experience of the 1984 Games, the World Championships and an assortment of other world-class competitions. He also has a work ethic and loyalty to the sport that defies explanation.

In June, Barton temporarily left Fluor and one of the few steady paychecks he has ever known, and went to Lake Placid to train with Podgorski. Fluor provided Barton with a modest sponsorship, the NPC helped out with room and board in Lake Placid and Barton did the rest.

Even when he was with Fluor, though, Barton only was able to work six-hour days. The rest of his time was devoted to training.

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“As far as monetarily, I’ve missed out quite big,” he said.

Put it this way: Mr. Summa Cum Laude has never yet collected a full-year’s salary.

Barton said he figures there’s plenty of time for regular work. All he needs right now is a fast kayak, smooth water and marching instructions for the opening ceremony in Seoul.

“My goal right now is to do well in the Olympics,” he said. “I don’t really worry about how much money I’m going to make from it or if I’m going to be famous. If my goal was to be famous, make a lot of money, then I probably would have quit right away.”

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Barton hasn’t quit, though there have been times when he probably considered it. Shortly after the boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, Barton was hampered by a viral strain. It sapped his strength and affected his paddling. “It was a long time until I felt better,” he said.

In the meantime, rumors came up.

Barton had trained too much. Barton couldn’t cope with the boycott of 1980. Barton wasn’t the grand talent everyone had thought him to be.

Yes, well, Barton won the bronze in Los Angeles, which tended to shut a few mouths.

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Afterward, he simply said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Should have been, since it was the first time an American had won a medal in kayak in 20 years, and the first time an American male kayaker had ever won an Olympic sprint event.

He won the 10-kilometer event at the 1985 World Championships. He won three gold medals at the 1987 national competition. He won golds at the Pan American Games. He won the 1987 pre-Olympic regatta on the Seoul course that will be used this month. He was third runner-up for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s sportsman of the year. He was a 1987 Sullivan Award nominee.

Rumors? What rumors?

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Barton will compete in the 1,000-meter singles and doubles (with Norman Bellingham--they finished fourth in the 1987 World Championships) races. Afterward, Barton will return to Fluor and to a steady paycheck. Nothing against his bosses, but he’s not in a hurry.

“I’m not going to be in the Olympics forever,” he said. “But while I’m young, I want to go for whatever I can in the Olympics.”

That’s the great thing about Barton. Going for the gold for him doesn’t mean the stuff that jingles in your pockets.

Endorsements? Barton would rather have a handshake from a competitor and another one of those medals hanging from his neck. The bronze, the one at his parents’ house in Michigan, is getting lonely.

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