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FOR CHUCK LYDA, IT'S BOTH PLEASURE AND PAIN
He's a Jack of All Sports and Master of a Few, Too

by Alan Greenberg
Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times, 1979

Chuck in Austria 1977COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado -- Chuck Lyda hasn't worked since 1974. He sleeps at least 10 hours a day. He doesn't own a stereo, TV, or any store-bought clothes. Last year he won $12,000 and gave it away. But then, what would you expect from someone who attended one high school and two community colleges and didn't graduate from any of them?

To look at his soft blue eyes and unscarred body, to listen to his calm voice, you'd never guess that the common denominator in Lyda's life is pain. Self-inflicted pain. The kind that would make the Marquis de Sade blanch.

Lyda won NBC's "The Fittest of Them All" competition while Olympic decathlon champion-turned-announcer Bruce Jenner, his hero, watched agape.

If car makers tested their vehicles like Lyda has tested his 6'2", 175-pound frame, we'd still be riding in horse-drawn buggies. After a while, the pain and the memories blur. That's a blessing. Were they etched in his consciousness, he couldn't go on.

There was the time he ran in a 72-mile race around Lake Tahoe in 14 hours and finished fourth, then paddled his kayak in a 1-hour
ocean race the next day. Or the time he came in 10th in a 220-mile bicycle race after not having raced for a year. Or the time he and some fellow canoeists paddled for 43 hours and were the first to finish the 420-mile Texas Water Safari.

"I go to competitions to compete against myself. If there are other people in the race, well, that's just the way it is."

And let us not forget the events which took place over four days last October when Lyda jumped off cliffs, ran up mountains, paddled through vicious whitewater and hauled himself across chasms and rivers with ropes and pulleys and won NBC's "The Fittest of Them All" competition while Olympic decathlon champion-turned-announcer Bruce Jenner, his hero, watched agape. For this, he won $12,000, which he turned back to the United States Olympic Committee in order to retain his amateur standing. But fear not. Lyda will receive 90% of that money in the form of extra USOC subsidies this year. Besides that income, he gets free room and board at the USOC's Squaw Valley training site where he has lived the past two years, and has all his travel expenses paid for in winter by the national biathlon (cross-country skiing and riflery combined) team for which he competes, and in summer by the kayak-canoe team. He couldn't be happier. Or saner. Well, happier.

"I don't think I do anything that someone else couldn't do," Lyda said. "I don't think there's anything special about it. Anyone can do whatever they want if they're willing to work at it. I go to competitions to compete against myself. If there are other people in the race, well, that's just the way it is.

"Another reason I don't like the sport is the people are all aggressive. Basically, they're all assholes. It's line up and beat the other guy and they carry it over onto the shore."

Therein lies the paradox. Lyda, a bearded 27-year-old who grew up in Newport Beach, is here competing at the National Sports Festival to hone his skills in flatwater kayak and canoe. But flatwater is his least favorite kind of racing. He resumed competitive kayaking in 1977 after an eight-year hiatus, just because it was a challenge.

"Another reason I don't like the sport is the people are all aggressive," Lyda said. "Basically, they're all --. It's line up and beat the other guy and they (his competitors) carry it over onto the shore."

Despite his disinclination toward such competition, canoe and kayak racing is Lyda's best chance to make his first Olympic team, which is his dream. His forte is whitewater (slalom) and not flatwater racing, but whitewater, save for the 1972 Munich Games, has never been an Olympic event. Lyda didn't make the Olympic team that year because he couldn't afford to travel to Maryland, site of the Olympic trials. He had been consistently beating most of his rivals who made the team and went on to win two gold and two silver medals in subsequent world whitewater championships.

He's convinced that variety is the spice of life, which is why he wants to maintain a hold on umpteen sports and "eight to 10" girlfriends worldwide.

His preference for whitewater competition also had a lot to do with his not making the United States national team which will be competing soon in Germany for the world flatwater title. Lyda hadn't been back five days from winning a silver medal at Quebec in world whitewater competition when he had to try out in flatwater. For him, flatwater is merely a means to an end, and he says he'll give it up after the Moscow Olympics, regardless.

He's convinced that variety is the spice of life, which is why he wants to maintain a hold on umpteen sports and "eight to 10" girlfriends worldwide.

It wasn't always this way. In junior high school and high school, Lyda tried out for every interscholastic team. He didn't make one. Kayaking and canoeing were his outlet. He made his first national team at 16 when he was a junior in high school. With his parents' approval, he took off the second semester to train. "It wasn't legal or kosher," he said, "but I did it."

"You should go through life enjoying what you're doing rather than just supporting yourself. It seems like people have gotten stagnant, but I've been there, too."

His late father was a technical illustrator, and Lyda was building his own boats before he was out of high school. Before 1974, he worked at various times as a boat builder, landscaper, gas station attendant, truck driver, construction worker and coach to support himself. To him, the world of 9 to 5 is anathema.

"I think there's got to be a lot more than that," Lyda said. "You should go through life enjoying what you're doing rather than just supporting yourself. It seems like people have gotten stagnant, but I've been there, too."

At 17, Lyda moved into an apartment with his then-girlfriend. Her cooking was so good he ballooned to 205 pounds. But cycling and a newfound desire to compete in some way other than sitting in a boat quickly melted away 40 pounds. And while he admits that the 72-mile Lake Tahoe run may be the closest he's come to testing his outer limits, he's planning to run the 100-mile Western States endurance race next year.

"I'm a compulsive extremist," he said. "If I get on a bike, I might ride 100 miles. But if I'm lazy, I'm really lazy. I'd call myself a lazy person. I don't consider that I've got any deep dark secrets that have to be knifed out. I just do what I do." And he's done it without serious injury, extensive weight training, transcendental meditation or Kickapoo joy juice. He's never quit a race.

"If you invented a new game," Bragg said, "he would be the best at it. Chuck is the Jeremiah Johnson type."

"Physiologically, it's hard to say whether your body knows what your mind is doing. But it has to," Lyda said. "Athletics are 70% mental. For me, everything in life is so great, it's impossible to imagine not being able to arrange things the way I want them to be. There's nothing I thought of doing as a kid that I haven't done."

As a team, the American canoeists and kayakers can't say the same. The American men traditionally finish behind East Germany, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sweden and Spain and would consider it a victory just to qualify for the Olympic finals. The American women, who won a silver and bronze medal at Tokyo in 1964, figure to do somewhat better. Still, they have only an outside shot for a medal in kayaking. Women do not compete in canoeing.

Chuck LydaIn 1976, there were only 200 kayaker-canoeists in the United States. Now there are 600. But they work mostly on their own. Bill Bragg, coach of the Ventura Olympic Canoe Club, which has won the national title four years in a row, said he is the only qualified club coach west of the Mississippi River. Since most any calm body of water will do for practice, the United States' problem is not facilities, but coaching and manpower. And nobody sees that improving dramatically anytime soon. Which doesn't affect Lyda too much. If he doesn't win at one sport, there's always another. And another. "If you invented a new game," Bragg said, "he would be the best at it. Chuck is the Jeremiah Johnson type."

"He's the most versatile guy I've ever seen," marvels fellow kayaker David Jones of Atlanta. "He's the last of a breed." Lyda is too busy to contemplate his athletic past. You see, he's never been hang gliding. Or...


KAYAKING AND CANOEING
Kayaker Lyda Addicted to Olympic Experience

by Karen Frawley
Staff Writer
San Diego Union - May 8, 1987

Chuck Lyda was cut from every football, basketball and baseball team he tried to join as a youth in Newport Beach. "I was a natural athlete, but not at those sports," Lyda said. "I really tried, but I was lousy at it."

"I took Chuck on paddling trips to keep him out of trouble," Tom Johnson said. "He had potential to be good, and we recognized it right away."

Lyda turned to the Boy Scouts at age 13 and was welcomed with open arms. In pursuit of merit badges, he met Tom Johnson, then a member of the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak Committee. "I took Chuck on paddling trips to keep him out of trouble," Johnson said. "He had potential to be good, and we recognized it right away."

Lyda exceeded Johnson's expectations. He earned a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team in flatwater canoeing and competed in the Montreal Games. He also won three gold and three silver medals for kayaking in six World Championships between 1969 and 1981.

But Lyda suffered his greatest disappointment when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow.
"Most athletes would have supported it if it would have done any good," Lyda said. "All it did was spoil the Olympics for years to come. The athletes were the easiest victims."

At 35, Lyda now is aiming for the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. He took a big step toward that goal yesterday by winning the 1,000-meter kayak event in the Western Regional Qualifying Trials at Miramar Reservoir. The victory qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak Trials June 9-12 at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.

"The Montreal Games were the highlight of my life," Lyda said. "It was an addictive experience." Lyda's addiction brought him to the U.S. Olympic Training Center at Lake Tahoe after the '76 Games. He paddled in the summer and trained for the biathlon in the winter, and was a biathlon-team alternate for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

But Lyda suffered his greatest disappointment when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow. "Most athletes would have supported it if it would have done any good," Lyda said. "All it did was spoil the Olympics for years to come. The athletes were the easiest victims."

"I'm not going to talk about a medal because that's unrealistic. I think the goals should be realistic, because if they're not, you can dream your life away without accomplishing anything."

Lyda, who continued to train after the boycott, joined the National Guard in early 1984, serving on weekends and training on weekdays. "The basic training screwed up the Olympic opportunity," said Lyda, who failed to make the '84 biathlon team. "I was left with only six weeks to train for the kayak trials, and I missed by a quarter of a second. There wasn't enough time. I blew it."

Lyda was so upset that he quit paddling and concentrated on the biathlon until 1986. He then decided to give paddling another try, and set his sights on Seoul. But his quest is not an easy one. "In the last few years, the other paddlers have made quantum leaps," Lyda said. "Now, I not only have to get back to my 1984 speed, but the challenge is to get faster while I've gotten older. My goals are to make the kayak four-man team and finish in the top six. I'm not going to talk about a medal because that's unrealistic. I think the goals should be realistic, because if they're not, you can dream your life away without accomplishing anything."


For more on Chuck's legacy, see Master Sergeant David Eckert Does Half-Ironman in Iraq for Re-enlistment

Chuck and Marietta 1975
Chuck Lyda and Marietta Gilman running wildwater slalom on Truckee River near Lake Tahoe, CA, 1975

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