Dreams of an Olympics Still Afloat With King Kayaker

Times Staff Writer

Bill Bragg is not one to hide his hobby. Right there stacked under a large pepper tree in the back yard of his family’s home in Newbury Park is the evidence: racing boats--about 50 kayaks and canoes.

In and around the house are paddles, boat molds and other equipment related to water travel.

There is little room for much else. Not even in the garage.

“The car hasn’t been in there for a long time,” Bragg said. It has been banished to the street, where it is parked out in the shadow of a 40-foot boat trailer.


Shipped to Lake

Only in the last week has the view of the residence been relatively unobstructed. That’s because much of the equipment was packed up and shipped here to Lake Overholser, site of the canoe and kayaking racing in this year’s U.S. Olympic Sports Festival.

Bragg didn’t compete. He didn’t coach, either, at least not in an official capacity. But what was he supposed to do, sit at home and run up the phone bill?

His daughter, Susan, was racing her kayak, which was reason enough to make the trip. But that wasn’t his only motive. He had invested too much time to do anything else but go and see the racing himself.


Bragg, 52, is the founder and director of the Ventura Olympic Canoe Club, and in one way or another he had a hand in the development of more than a dozen of the boat racers who competed at the Festival last Sunday and Monday.

Two of them, Fred and David Spaulding, brothers from Ventura, were multiple medal winners. Several others, including Susan Bragg, finished in the top eight.

The Spauldings are typical of Bragg’s racers in that they met him while attending Balboa Middle School in Ventura.

Bragg has taught physical education at Balboa for more than 20 years, and many of his racers are former students.


The majority of them learned of his interest in boating and invited themselves along.

Others, such as Fred Spaulding, who won silver medals in the men’s 500 and 1,000-meter canoe singles races, needed more encouragement.

As the story goes, Ellen Spaulding was checking her son’s pants pockets before doing wash when she found a folded-up flyer inviting anyone interested out for a paddle in Ventura Harbor.

Fred wasn’t all that interested in boating--or anything else, for that matter--which is why he was driven to the meeting place and, as Bragg recalled, “pushed out of the car.”


Time spent refining his paddling technique further dampened Fred’s enthusiasm for the activity. But when finally let out on the water, he found it exhilarating.

That was 10 years ago.

Seeking Berth

Last year, Spaulding came within a second of qualifying for the Olympic team. A repeat of his Olympic Festival performance Aug. 5-6 in Indianapolis will likely land him a berth on the U.S. team for the world championships in Bulgaria later this year.


Both Spauldings eventually hope to follow in the wake of former Ventura teammate Rod McLain, a two-time Olympian who isn’t competing this year.

Bragg is naturally proud, although his club was not formed for the purpose of training future Olympians.

“I just do things,” he said. “I don’t think far enough down the road to ever have planned this.”

Bragg still races in master’s competitions. He grew up in Gardena and was a surfer and paddleboard racer until a man he met in Hawaii suggested he try kayaking.


Six months after returning to Southern California from the islands, Bragg finally found a person who owned a kayak.

Bragg borrowed the man’s boat mold and made his own. Two years later, he was racing for the United States at the world championships in East Germany.

He never did make an Olympic team, but Bragg won a gold and two silver medals in the 1967 Pan American games and was a three-time national champion--each time with a different partner--in the two-man, 10,000-meter kayak race.

Harbor Training


In 1969, he was hired by the Ventura School District, relocated to Newbury Park, and moved his training headquarters to Ventura Harbor.

Soon, about a dozen students were periodically joining him for paddles around the harbor.

Four years later, the number was up to 20 and steadily increasing. The excursions were coming with greater regularity, and occasionally there were local races.

It was then that Bragg decided it was time to branch out.


He made the club official by giving it a name, secured sponsorship, took his proteges up to Seattle for the national championships and came back with the team title.

The next year, Bragg took some time off to work on his master’s degree, but in 1975 Ventura made a triumphant return to the nationals, beginning a streak of six consecutive team championships.

In all, Ventura has won 10 national titles and finished second four times, including last year. This year’s championship will be decided in Indianapolis.

Despite the club’s success, it remains a low-budget operation.


Making Boats

“We’ve never had any consistent sponsorship, so the only way I could see to do it was to build our own equipment,” Bragg said. “We have molds for everything. All of the paddlers can make their own boats. The ones who stay with it become pretty expert in fiberglass boat construction.”

The single-man kayaks and canoes used in the Sports Festival are 17 feet long and are made from wood veneer, fiberglass, carbon fiber and Teflon combinations. The kayaks weigh 26 pounds and the canoes up to 35.

“We can make a boat that’s competitive world class--one you can take to the Olympics and race and not feel you were at a disadvantage,” Bragg said.


And if you would rather just paddle across the harbor, well that’s OK too.

“I never really set out to start a real competitive club,” Bragg insisted. “All I did was say yes to some kids when they asked if they could come with me and try it.”