Paddling: Nicklaus, Jordan..Who?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1996

Paddling: Nicklaus, Jordan..Who?

Greg Barton, America's most celebrated unknown athlete
By Martin Dugard

Devoted paddlers talk about greg barton's kayak stroke with the same reverence that country-clubbers reserve for Jack Nicklaus's golf swing. No unseemly kerplunk marks the catch, that split second when his carbon-fiber blade slices into the water. The pull, when virtually every muscle of his upper body strains to propel the boat forward, seems effortless. And finally there's his dainty J, a subtle twist that frees his paddle for the next flawless stroke.

"People are always stopping me on the street," says Barton, a reserved 36-year-old Michigander and subculture star who looks awkwardly top-heavy on dry land. "I wind up talking about the nuance of the kayak stroke for hours."

With his singular focus, Barton may be the perfect hero for a sport whose icons, like its devotees, tend to be quiet, reserved, even a little nerdy. Indeed, Barton's place in kayaking history is no less secure than, say, Michael Jordan's in basketball: He just might be the best of all time.

A pure flatwater sprinter, Barton won five medals, including two gold, during three different Olympics. After retiring from Olympic competition, he transformed himself into the world's dominant marathon kayaker, which involves paddling as many as 120 miles in a single day. In 1994, with no marathon experience, he won the Finlandia Clean Water Challenge, a grueling 30-day, 765-mile stage race from Chicago to New York City--a feat akin to Linford Christie one day deciding to go long and smoking the field in the Boston Marathon. Since then, he's won virtually every race he's entered. He did lose to South African Lee McGregor in last year's Finlandia Challenge, but that only added to the Barton mystique: A few days after crawling out of his kayak in Manhattan, McGregor retired. "After beating Greg," he said, "I have no reason to continue competing."

This summer, with the Finlandia Challenge postponed for the Olympic year, Barton will morph again in a bid to dominate yet another paddle sport. He's--gasp--crawling into a canoe, and at press time he was set to make his debut on Memorial Day in the 70-mile General Clinton Canoe Regatta, the first leg of the prestigious Triple Crown of Paddling, which also includes the 120-mile Au Sabel Marathon in Michigan and the 140-mile Classique Internationale de Canots in Quebec. Though the two craft require different skills, Barton downplays the transition. "It's not that big of a deal," he says, humbly yet with a hint of cockiness. "It's still basically about applying perpendicular force to a liquid environment."

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