For Bellingham, It Has Been More Than a Stroke of Luck : Rowing: After winning an Olympic gold medal in kayaking last year, he has finally entered college. Now, he is on Orange Coast College's freshman crew with plans to eventually compete for Harvard.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Lift Truck Olympics are not likely to be found at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The competition, organized annually by a paper company, allows fork lift operators in the company's warehouses to display their skills.

Even so, Olympic gold medalist Norman Bellingham discovered kindred souls when he was asked to present awards last month to the winning drivers.

"I was in the room where they were waiting to compete," Bellingham said. "You could have heard a pin drop, they were so intense. They weren't saying a word. The atmosphere was electric."

Bellingham could appreciate such commitment. He has lived it since beginning to kayak at 13.

At 17, he was the world's top-ranked white-water slalom junior. Switching to flat water competition, he qualified for the U.S. 1984 Olympic team in his debut race, and was chosen to stroke the four-man kayak.

Last year at Seoul, he and Greg Barton won the 1,000-meter kayak doubles, in a spectacular, come-from-behind race.

Bellingham, 24, who had put off college and career for the hardscrabble life of an elite minor-sport athlete, is taking a 17-hour course load at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. He is also learning to row at OCC, a useful skill because he is planning to transfer to Harvard, a U.S. collegiate rowing powerhouse, in January.

Bellingham, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound athlete, also models, and network series "Santa Barbara" and "Baywatch" have asked him to read for parts.

He has turned down the acting opportunities.

"I'd rather live my own life than pretend to be someone else's," he said.

But he will row at Harvard. Coach Harry Parker decided to give him a try before Bellingham had rowed a stroke.

"He has the right body type," said Parker when Bellingham was accepted to Harvard last summer. "He's tall enough. He's a strong person. And he's demonstrated the commitment and willingness to work hard."

Said George Jenkins, director of the Newport Aquatic Center, where Bellingham trains: "You can teach a person to row, but you can't teach him to win. Norm knows how to win."

All Bellingham has to decide now is what to train for three years from now--kayaking or rowing.

"I'm just interested in getting the boat down the course as fast as I can," Bellingham said. "If I have to go backward to do it, that's OK."

For Bellingham, there's only one place to be--in front.

He has taken to heart Beethoven's advice, "You must seize destiny by the throat!" It has been his motto since his coach, Bill Endicott of Bethesda, Md., nailed the quote on a tree beside a Potomac River feeder canal where the white-water team practices.

Greg Barton said: "He'd rather do what it takes to succeed than sit home and put his fate in someone else's hands."

He has read voraciously, sought challenging coaches and training partners, and gone to New Zealand three consecutive years to train with people who, he said, expect to win.

And he has learned to love the pain, with the help of Olympic and world champion Ian Ferguson of New Zealand.

A Valuable Lesson

Bellingham explains the process. He had begun training with the New Zealanders, and had complained of being in pain. He was thinking of leaving, he recalled. Ferguson considered the situation and decided the young American had something to learn.

"We were doing a fearsome workout, 20 sprints, each for one minute, with very little rest between each one," Bellingham said. "We went against each other, racing head to head, the competition intense, as neither of us wanted to give in to the other.

"Ferg turned to me after the 10th sprint, his face white--drawn out and exhausted--a little drool was coming out of the side of his mouth and he said, 'OK, Norm, here's where it gets fun.' And off we went for the second half of the workout.

"When it was over I thought perhaps Ferg had been trying to kill me. He caught his breath and smiled, 'Isn't that fun? Learn to thrive on it, Norm, because that's what this game is all about.' "

Bellingham learned his lesson well. It was Ferguson and his partner, Paul MacDonald, whom Bellingham and Barton defeated in Seoul by 0.29 of a second.

"As a child, he struck out on his own," said Norman's father, John Bellingham, a veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service. "He would spend all day by himself, studying the baseball games in the American compound, through the fence, as he couldn't play until he was in second grade.

"He was always fighting to be free. When we went trekking in the mountains in Nepal, Norman was always out ahead of everybody.

"He was not easily controllable. His teachers found him undisciplined."

Bellingham was reared in the embassies of Hong Kong, India, Nepal and Singapore. Bellingham's family returned for a year to the United States when he was 13, and after another year abroad, permanently when he was 15.

Bellingham had felt the excitement--and occasional terror--of whitewater rafting on Nepal's Trisuli River, which flows through the Himalayas into the Ganges.

Negotiating narrow gorges 20- to 30-feet wide and a 4,000-foot decent on boulder-strewn river, the Bellingham party, was lucky to survive the ride in their ill-suited surplus Navy survival raft. Servants, laughing at the crazy Westerners, picked up the pieces at the bottom of the run.

Norm loved it.

On the Home Front

During his first, brief year home in Rockville, Md., he was seeking a suitable diversion for a teen-ager who was a foreigner in his own land. Bellingham's parents sent him to a summer canoe-kayak camp run by Tom and Jamie McEwan.

The McEwans introduced him to Endicott, who became Bellingham's mentor.

Endicott saw promise in Bellingham, 14.

"Tom McEwan told me that one time they were going on a river trip," Endicott said. "He explained to the kids it was going to be a hard and dangerous trip. Norm took him aside and asked him seriously, 'Do you think there's a 50-50 chance I'll survive this trip?' Tom assured him there was, and Norm said, 'Then I'll go.'

"He's always been willing to play high-risk poker. When I heard that story, I thought, 'This is great! This is the kind of guy I want.' "

Endicott, whose devotion to white-water slalom--to the point of giving up a job on Capitol Hill in Washington to become Olympic coach--has shaped Bellingham's competitive philosophy. Bellingham read Endicott's book, "To Win the Worlds," over and over, and, forgetting the source, would happily tell the coach stories from the book.

"He was the kind of a guy who would be sitting in class, doing doodles of kayaks," Endicott said. "He would come to my house and say something fanatic. He was really driven.

"Norm was the first one I noticed having an impact on. It was very special to me."

By then a confirmed kayaker, Bellingham was at a loss during his family's final year abroad, this time in Singapore. Bellingham played football--cornerback and tight end--and while other football players were straining to impress scouts, Bellingham was trying to figure out how to get his kayak shipped over.

On his return to the United States, Bellingham became a river rat. Gradually dropping other sports, he trained twice a day with Endicott, frequently missing his 7 a.m. class at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

But Bellingham learned that bad things can happen on the way to success. He missed a gate at the white-water slalom trials, just missing the senior team, and was unable to compete at the 1983 World Championships.

"I was stunned," he said. "I was ready at 18 to win a medal."

He not only failed to make the team, he was so obsessed with kayaking that he flunked two high school courses and did not graduate with his class in 1983. Bellingham went to summer school to get his diploma. He had a a 2.1 grade-point average. He then worked in construction.

It was difficult for his college-educated parents to understand their son, particularly with an older son, Jim, who had won a Westinghouse science scholarship and would eventually earn a Ph.D in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But all is forgiven at Richard Montgomery High. The class of 1989 invited Bellingham to deliver its commencement address. His theme was "A Second Chance," for people who shy away from the mainstream.

Bellingham's single-mindness can be abrasive.

"Norm is interested in excellence and he doesn't like people who don't have the same attitude," Endicott said.

He has a reputation on the U.S. canoe and kayak team as being uncooperative. When Bellingham decided to switch to flat-water racing, he arrived at the U.S. training camp in Florida, set up a tent in a swamp and attended workouts.

It didn't take long for him to clash with coach Paul Podgorski, a Polish defector who perceived a rebellious spirit and lack of discipline in Bellingham, then 19.

"Norm does not like to be in a group," Podgorski said. "It's no problem if the group does what he wants to do.

"He was going so hard the first few pieces, he would upset the others. He should have been going 60-70%. He would hammer in front, make waves for the guys behind, finish and go home.

"I wanted to teach him discipline. Part of coaching is preparing for future life."

Also, Podgorski said, Bellingham always wanted to be in the lane next to the fastest racers, and, in a double, he would only paddle with a person better than he.

"In the camps, we all did the same training," Podgorski said. "Many times Norm would do my training and his training as well. In two or three days he was so tired, he would take two or three days off, sleeping whole days. Then he would be back again."

Bellingham admits he bended Podgorski's rules. He wasn't interested in running eight miles a morning, he wanted to learn to race a flat-water kayak.

"I only had a few months to figure out how to do the sport," he said. "I needed time in the boat."

One day, after the team had left for a long run, Podgorski arrived to find Bellingham lounging by the pool listening to music, waiting for the workout to begin.

After that Bellingham either left, or was thrown out, depending on who is talking. So, he hitchhiked to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break week.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

A frustrated Bellingham sought Endicott, who originally had advised him against flat-water racing. But Endicott, in typical fashion, checked out material and videos. Studying them, Endicott concluded, "You could win a gold medal in this sport."

Together they devised a training program, modifying the U.S. program which, they decided, was bringing the athletes to peak at the wrong time.

It worked for Bellingham, who made the national team at the next trials.

The U.S. four-man kayak, which Bellingham stroked (set the pace in the bow seat), did not make the finals at the 1984 Olympics. Bellingham, determined to give the U.S. coaches another try, relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid, N.Y., Podgorski's home.

The clashes continued, so Bellingham went to New Zealand to train. He was impressed by their paddlers at the L.A. Games.

For three years he spent the winter months training in an international atmosphere, with Swedes, English, Norwegians, West Germans, Australians and New Zealanders, under the direction of coach Benny Hutchings. He had no trouble with group training there, as the athletes formed intensely competitive units.

Ferguson and MacDonald taught him how to race, he said.

"They intellectualized everything, explaining why we were doing things," he said. "I ate that up. I worked so hard I was dizzy all the time."

When he came back to the United States, he was faster, but it did not make things easier with the U.S. team. The selection process for the 1988 team left hard feelings all around, as Podgorski chose Mike Herbert to race the 500-meter singles over Bellingham.

Leslie Klein, assistant executive director of the U.S. national program, said, "Norm is best motivated by being tangential to the program in his mind."

Being an underdog, in other words.

It was when Bellingham teamed with the older, calmer Barton that his presence on the U.S. team began to make sense. Barton, a quiet, contemplative mechanical engineer who grew up on a pig farm in Homer, Mich., complemented Bellingham.

Barton and Bellingham had not previously been able to blend into a smooth team. But the introduction in 1985 of a new scooped paddle from Sweden evened many of the technological problems. Also, Bellingham matured, and the partnership started to click.

Barton, who single-handedly brought the United States into international kayak medal contention, could also deal with the coaches. If he did not like something, he did not make an issue of it. He did it his way anyway.

With Bellingham providing the mid-race power so Barton could kick the last 200 meters, the two won the gold medal in 1988--Barton's second of the day.

Debilitating Disease

During the years he was training so intensively, Bellingham had serious health problems. Two months after a one-day ski trip to Lake Tahoe in 1985, Bellingham was struck by a debilitating fatigue. Suddenly, he could barely crawl out of bed for weeks at a time.

The malady was diagnosed the next summer as Epstein-Barr virus, which had appeared in a virulent outbreak at Tahoe while Bellingham was there. Bellingham was relieved to learn what it was. Dropping in and out of training and producing uneven race results, he had built a reputation as a head case, and he was beginning to believe it himself.

The virus, present in 90% of the population, comes inexplicably in certain people, and is one suspected cause of the chronic fatigue syndrome. It's a problem that never goes away, and Bellingham must be careful to protect his health.

"If I do something stupid, like party too much or not dress warmly enough for a workout, I pay for it for two weeks.

"If it helps me live a more sensible life, then maybe it's worth it," he said.

Bellingham's mother, Lorraine, said that her son still sees things with that spirit of anticipation and adventure he read about in his favorite children's books by Enid Blyton.

"He has the magic of looking at the world with a sense of wonderment," she said. "He always has been an observer. He has an instinct for the truth.

"I always relied on him for the truth. He is extremely insightful. He wanted things to be good."

But he's not naive.

Said George Jenkins, "Don't let that little-boy, gee-whiz attitude fool you. He's very sharp and he knows exactly what he's doing."

Bellingham, for his part, is worried that he's mellowing.

"I think I'm becoming more tolerant," he said, referring to working with the 18-and 19-year old rowers at OCC, for whom he has to, as coach Jim Jorgensen said, power down, so the port side can keep up.

"I have to figure out how to play this game," he said of rowing. "What the rules are when you are juggling things without a real focus. You can stagnate at the top just trying to juggle.

"Going to school and being an athlete is a balancing act. But I have to do this. It's easier now that I have a stamp on life.

"The key is to maintain the level of adventure.

"You have to throw the dice every now and then."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°