Toughened by a Spartan Winter in Florida, America's Canoeists and Kayakers Are Paddling Toward L.a.

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Cove Campground sits at the end of a shell road, two miles east of Inverness in the sandy pinelands of central Florida. There is nothing special about the ramshackle trailer park, except its proximity to the glass-smooth waters of Lake Henderson. Ringed by cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, Henderson is home to snakes, alligators and for five months to a hardy crew of canoeists and kayakers hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team.

Last November 34 men and women left their jobs, families and homes and traveled to Inverness at their own expense to prepare for April's Olympic trials. Dominated by the East Europeans (the U.S. has not won a medal in two decades), the Olympic competition consists of single and double 500-and 1,000-meter sprints and a four-person kayak event, 500 meters for women, 1,000 for men. The team will train in Lake Placid during May and then spend a month racing in Europe.

American paddlers have been traveling to Lake Henderson for the past 20 years, but Cove Campground didn't become the team's official headquarters until 1982. Though the U.S. Olympic Committee provided the team with $100,000, most of that will go toward the trip to Europe. A mere $9,000 was budgeted for winter training, most of which went for rent. Sleeping up to four in each cabin, the athletes would queue up at night to use the solitary pay phone for collect calls to their families. Since they were either on the water, running or lifting weights seven hours a day, the paddlers each took in about 6,000 calories a day. And since they footed the grocery bills, the fare wasn't exactly gourmet. Staples included macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and bologna.

"We had a place to train and a place to live. What more could you want?" asks land surveyor Terry White, one of the fortunate 17 chosen for the team at the trials on the Occoquan reservoir near Dumfries, Va. "If you love the sport," he continues, "you'll compete no matter what the hardships."

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