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Remembering Chuck Lyda
"Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you,
say what you've got to say, and say it hot
."
D.H. Lawrence

Memories from Teammate
John Hefti

I met Chuck Lyda in Kernville California in January 1973. At the time, I was 16 years old and Chuck was 20. Kernville was a national slalom training center in 1972 for athletes hoping to make the Olympic team that year. In 1973, Kernville attracted a smaller but no less dedicated group of slalom racers who were intent on preparing for the World Championships in Switzerland that summer. Not a month before, I had made a life-changing decision to leave home and school and head West to train with some of the best athletes in the sport... full text below

Memories from Teammate
Sue Norman

Chuck had a very important impact on my life, that I do not believe I ever really communicated to him. It occurred over a brief but very important time in my paddling career. The year was 1981, and I was competing for the US World Championship team in whitewater slalom. In the preceding two months leading up to the team trials, Chuck had become a friend, often offering me encouragement and support during training camps/workouts and races as he was training and competing for his events in whitewater and slalom. As a westerner and relative newcomer to the established east coast racing world, he was clearly supporting me as the “underdog”... more

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Remembrance by Friend and Teammate, John Hefti


Chuck LaughingI met Chuck Lyda in Kernville California in January 1973. At the time, I was 16 years old and Chuck was 20. Kernville was a national slalom training center in 1972 for athletes hoping to make the Olympic team that year. In 1973, Kernville attracted a smaller but no less dedicated group of slalom racers who were intent on preparing for the World Championships in Switzerland that summer. Not a month before, I had made a life-changing decision to leave home and school and head West to train with some of the best athletes in the sport.

When I arrived at Kernville, I found an interesting mixture of people. There was a core of serious athletes, another more recreational group of boaters, and of course the obligatory party boaters who hung around on weekends.

At first pass, Chuck did not fit neatly into any of these groups. What I first noticed about Chuck was his energy and intensity. On the water, he was focused and intense during training; but off the water, he was jovial and free-spirited. He seemed to have two principal interests: paddling as much as he could, and spending time with women when he was not paddling. To my 16-year-old mind, this was a very appealing life.

At first, I didn't think Chuck was serious about training. He did not have a specific event on which he focused, in marked distinction to other serious racers who had their events, and around which all of their training revolved. Leaving aside the recreational and party contingent, most of us were slalom racers who spent most of our time training in the gates. Chuck spent a considerable amount of time gate training as well, but he also did wildwater runs and other sports. Sometimes he was in a kayak, other times in a C-1, and yet other times in a C-2 with Joe Sedivec. At some point during the winter, he also paired up with Bonnie Losick, and started training in C-2 mixed. Chuck's apartment in Newport Beach had a partially assembled motorcycle by the door, and I thought he was the riparian equivalent of the perennial beach bum and biker, rather than a serious athlete.

However, these initial impressions were superficial. When Chuck was in the boat and on the water, he was every bit as focused, if not more focused, than the other top athletes. His approach to training was direct and purposeful, rather than deliberative and analytic. If there was a question about how to run a sequence of gates, Chuck would simply go out there and try it every which way until he found the best way to do it, while the rest of us just huddled in the eddy and spent far too long discussing it. In the end, Chuck usually converged on the correct approach before the rest of us did.

In early March, we prepared to head back east for the spring racing circuit. Before leaving, we planned to run a few rivers in California. The first of these rivers was the Stanislaus near Angels Camp, on the run that is now at the bottom of New Melones reservoir. About a third of the way into the run, Brent Lewis got seriously beat down in a hole and went swimming. Although he made it to shore safely, his boat broached on the upstream side of a boulder, right in the middle of the river. At this point in the run, hiking out was not really an option, and we did not have the necessary equipment to pull his boat off the rock. While the rest of us stood on the shore and tried to figure out what to do, Chuck stripped down, jumped into the icy water at the top of the rapid, and swam for the boulder. He managed to catch the eddy behind the boulder and climb up to the top, stark naked. He lowered himself on the upstream side of the rock and grabbed hold of the trapped boat. With some hard tugging and rocking he freed the boat, which washed down through the rest of the rapid and into an eddy on the right side of the river. He then stood atop the rock, like a bronze god, and smiled and nodded in his characteristic way, as if to say 'mission accomplished.'

The next day, we ran the Tuolumne river at a very high level. The wife of one paddler was in tears because she was sure her husband would die on the river that day. However, the rest of us were more concerned about another paddler who had a very weak roll. Even in the easy rapids of Riverside Park in Kernville, her roll was only 50%. To make matters worse, she elected not to wear a wet suit despite the sleet and near-freezing temperature. A number of us tried to persuade her not to run the river, but she stubbornly insisted on joining us.

Our worst fears materialized in the first hard rapid of the day: she flipped over and went swimming. She continued this pattern for several more of the hard rapids, until it became apparent that she was hypothermic, and losing her coordination and what little judgment she had possessed at the put-in. While the rest of us tried to figure out how to deal with the situation, Chuck made a beeline for her as she stood confused on the shore by her boat. He took off his wet suit, and insisted that she put it on. He handed his wetsuit to her and stood there in nothing but shorts while she pulled on his wetsuit. He then put on his paddle jacket directly against his skin, without benefit of any other insulation, and donned the rest of his paddling gear. We proceeded to run the rest of the river and made it safely to the takeout.

Our last stop in California was the Mokelumne slalom, in early March. Influenced by Chuck's approach to paddling, I raced in several different classes: K-1, C-1, and C-2 with Johnny Evans, who was fresh off the Olympic team. I don't remember how I did in any of my races, but I do remember that Johnny and I beat Chuck and Joe. As the scores were posted and other racers celebrated, muttered, or cursed, Chuck came over and congratulated me with a firm handshake, replete with the smile and nod. Of course he had wanted to win, but he also wanted to be a good sport and help an aspiring junior paddler celebrate. I remember that moment far better than any other part of that race.

Chuck arrived on the east coast that spring shortly before the national championships on the Savage River in April. It had been raining for many days beforehand, and the Savage was flowing much higher than usual. The evening before the first day of racing, a group of us, including Chuck and Bonnie in a C-2, decided to run the river for fun. We powered down the river, blasting through waves and holes, until we got to a section called Triple Drop. Chuck and Bonnie were a little too far right and ended up going through one of the biggest holes in the river. They completely disappeared for a second or two, then exploded out of the hole nearly vertical. While Bonnie dangled and flailed in midair in the bow, Chuck threw a very hard brace that stabilized the boat and returned to its horizontal position. He was totally unfazed.

As the racing season progressed, it was not apparent in what class Chuck was trying to make the team. Sometimes he paddled his downriver kayak, other times a slalom C-1, and yet other times a downriver C-2 with Bonnie. At the slalom team trials he paddled C-2 with Joe Sedivec, and easily made the team. Unfortunately, Joe was not in a position to leave his business behind for a summer of racing in Europe. However, at the downriver team trials a week later, he showed up in a C-2 with Bonnie and they easily made the team.

I was lucky enough to race on the international circuit in Europe that summer; and I continued training and racing the following year, but stayed much closer to my home in Washington DC. I don't remember seeing Chuck on the racing circuit in 1974. In 1975, I elected not to compete because I was pursuing other interests, and so I did not have the pleasure of spending time with Chuck or seeing him race. In the World Championships that summer, Chuck and Marietta Gilman won the World Championships. Although their accomplishment probably did not get the full recognition it deserved, because C-2 mixed was not a terribly competitive class that year, they nevertheless did better than all of the American C-2 men teams. They paddled at a completely different level than any of their direct competitors, and most of their male counterparts as well.

I did not race in 1976, when Chuck made the US Olympic team and competed in Montréal in flatwater. His decision to compete in flatwater surprised me at the time. Up to that point, I had viewed Chuck as more of a thrill seeker who gravitated to whitewater paddling as a result. However, I did not yet appreciate what it was that drove Chuck to compete: the pleasure of discipline, hard work, and a well-defined goal.

I raced again in 1977, when Chuck was a fellow teammate in the World Championships that year. Chuck paddled in the men's kayak downriver class, and again with Marietta in C-2 mixed. They easily won the C-2 mixed slalom competition. I spent a fair amount of time with Chuck that summer, and always thoroughly enjoyed his company. I appreciated his simple, direct, and purposeful approach to life. However, unlike many of his colleagues, he also had a sense of humor about everything. It's not that he didn't take racing seriously, he just wanted to have fun while he was doing it.

After the World Championships in 1977, I moved on in life and left racing behind for other passions. I moved to New York City, and all but forgot about paddling. In the winter of 1979, I received a letter from Chuck asking if I was interested in training C-2 for the upcoming World Championships that summer. I hadn't really thought much about paddling, aside from some recreational trips, and I was rather surprised by his letter. Although my work kept me in very good shape-probably better than when I was actively training in slalom-I had been out of the boat for almost 2 years. Further, my work in New York City would not permit me to take a six-month leave of absence to train. Nevertheless, I was thrilled by the prospect of training with Chuck, and wrote back to him to say that I would be very happy to train, but did not have a lot of time to devote to it. I told him that I could not move to the national training camp in Washington DC for an extended period of time, and asked if he would be willing to come to New York City for our initial training.

Now, anyone who knew Chuck remembers that he did not like the East Coast. He did not hide his disdain for the bad weather, and for the racers who he derisively labeled "uptight eastern slalom pricks". With this in mind, I fully expected Chuck to ignore my reply. I knew he hated the East Coast, and that New York City represented the epitome of what he hated most about the East. Further, Chuck was at the top of his game, having just won Wide World of Sports 'The Fittest of Them All' competition the previous year. He had many other options.

So I was quite surprised when Chuck agreed to these terms. He did request that we spend some time in Washington DC, so that we could train with other top boaters. He stated that he was willing to show up in New York City whenever I had the time to train. I was flabbergasted, but certainly willing to take him up on his offer! I found a place in the city where we could train, and a place where he could keep his boats. (I knew that they would not last long on top of his car parked on the street.) He showed up at my apartment one evening about six weeks before the team trials, and in the 10 minutes we spent conveying our hellos to one another, the trunk of his car was raided. Chuck cursed, but soon discovered that the would-be thieves had piled through his old smelly boating clothes and decided there was nothing worth taking. I humorously informed him that New York City thieves are very particular and discerning, and certainly would not waste their time stealing damp polypro and dirty socks. The crust of Chuck's anger broke, and he let go a great laugh. We took his boats over to the boathouse and dropped off his gear. He spent three weeks with me at my apartment, and we found a place in the East River where we could set up slalom gates on flatwater and do our workouts. We trained hard during the day, getting up very early in the morning to complete our first training session so that I could get to work on time. During the day he worked out in his downriver C-1 on the East River; an activity for which I have always wished I had a picture: Chuck Lyda, paddling away, with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

Chuck tolerated New York City well, aside from the infamous cab driver reflex: when a traffic light turned green, the cabbies always honked the horn more quickly than Chuck stepped on the gas. A trip across town with Chuck at the wheel was a journey peppered with expletives rivaling the most foul-mouthed New Yorkers. I told him he fit in quite well!

Three weeks before the team trials, we headed to Washington DC. At our first training sessions, coach Bill Endicott was very discouraging of our chances to make the team. He said that the quality of paddling had become so high in this country that was no longer possible for two people to show up weeks before the team trials and have any realistic chance of making the team. However, Chuck was determined and did not let these discouraging comments affect him in the least.

Our first race together was on the gorge below Great Falls in very high water; not an ideal venue for a slalom race, and even less ideal for a newly-minted C-2 team. Before our first run, we peeled out into the current and hit a large exploding wave that flipped us violently. We had never rolled a C-2 together before. I just hung on in rolling position and waited for Chuck to initiate the roll. When I felt him start to roll, strong and clear, I followed and we rolled up effortlessly. Unfortunately, that was the only effortless part of the race that day. Our first run was a disaster, as we got thrown around every which way and often worked at cross-purposes. On the second run, we fared no better. We were largely out of control, and by midpoint on the course we had already missed half a dozen gates. When we pulled into an eddy for an upstream gate, I said to Chuck that I thought we should just quit. We were doing so badly I saw no purpose in continuing the race. Chuck slammed his paddle on the front deck and screamed that quitting was not an option. He did not say this as a suggestion or as an encouragement, but as a statement of determined and absolute fact.

I have never forgotten this incident. In the brief few seconds it took Chuck to blast out his opinion, I learned a lot about what motivates him: he could tolerate losing, but not quitting. It didn't matter that we had no chance of winning that race, or even turning in a respectable run in terms of time and penalties. What mattered is that we had committed to the race, and we should see this commitment through to the finish line. With this understanding, and all of the thought I have given it over the years, I realized that it was a defining moment in my own life. I was in the boat and on the river for the simple pleasure of paddling; when that pleasure disappeared, so did my desire to be there. However, much of what is worth pursuing in life is preceded by moments like this. If effort is proportional to pleasure, pleasure will often not materialize. For Chuck, the pleasure was the pursuit, was the challenge, and was the commitment.

In the weeks that followed, I completely changed my approach to training. I was no longer concerned with the coach's opinion, or even what real chances we had of making the team that year. Instead, I followed Chuck's lead and focused on each training session with the singular purpose of improving. And I found tremendous joy in doing so.

I also discovered something else very interesting about Chuck during these weeks. Apparently, Chuck was something of a controversial character in the racing world. He had his own way of doing things, had his opinions that he freely expressed, and had the reputation of being very egotistical. In addition, his singular purpose of pursuing athletic achievement came at the price of living a very austere life, and this austerity occasionally trespassed upon the generosity of others. I did not arrive at these conclusions on my own, but rather heard these comments from others. On a number of occasions, people asked me what it was like to train with Chuck. Was he really that difficult? Was it his way or the highway? Did I just occupy the back of the boat and do whatever I was told?

Truth be told, I was quite surprised by these questions. I had known Chuck for six years, and aside from his directness I had never experienced any of these qualities. In fact, now that I occupied a boat with him and we shared a common purpose, I found him to be just the opposite. Certainly it was true that he had his opinions and ideas about training, but these were not directly motivated by his ego. He just wanted to win; and in the absence of winning, at least improve. We sometimes had disagreements about how to run a sequence of gates. However, never once did Chuck insist on doing it his way. Rather, as I had witnessed in Kernville years before, we tried different approaches and always ended up settling on the solution that gave the best result, independent of who had thought of it. He always treated me as an equal, with respect and admiration, and always as a colleague. Those who have spent any time around serious C-2 teams in training know that this is not always the case.

More importantly, we had a tremendous amount of fun. Our intense training sessions were punctuated with jokes and laughter. Never once did our discussions and arguments get personal. He never said a single disparaging word about me or any other racer, even when it was sometimes deserved. As far as I can tell, Chuck wanted to win based on his ability, not on other's fallibility. This is a truly rare quality among athletes. He valued athleticism and skill, rather than psychological games. He wanted to win; but more importantly, he wanted to play a good game, a fair game.

The lesson in persistence I learned from Chuck reached a climax at the team trials that year. There were four days of races, and to make the team one needed to win at least one of the days. I do not remember the results of the first three days, but I do remember that we did not do terribly well the first day. As usual, Chuck was not discouraged. We talked and strategized and practiced. The second day we improved tremendously but not enough to make the team. The third day came with even more improvement, but still no spot on the team. We were still on the steep part of our learning curve, as Chuck reminded me the night before the last day of racing, and he was entirely convinced we were going to make the team. We finally hit our stride on our second run of the last day. We were tight, fast, and in very good control. Midway through the course, we had cleaned every gate and hit every line.

Perhaps as a result of this, I unilaterally made a decision that was ultimately fatal. We were coming out of an upstream gate that involved a ferry to a downstream gate hung on the same wire. We had to ferry very high and turn the boat hard to make it through the downstream forward gate in the correct direction. I chose to come out of the eddy early, making our ferry lower but faster. At the last minute we cranked the boat around for the downstream gate but managed to fall slightly short of the correct orientation. This earned us a 50-second penalty. Although we aced the remainder of the course and believed we had won -- and indeed would have easily won were it not for this penalty -- the gate judges had a different opinion.

Needless to say, we were both very frustrated. We both believed that we deserved to be on the team-or least were good enough that we should have qualified-and that in the remaining time until the World Championships we could've improved to the point of being serious medal contenders. However we had not earned that opportunity. But Chuck never said a word to me about my poor decision that cost us a place on the team. And I never got the sense that he was angry at me. He was too focused on the future to dwell on my mistake.

This is when I learned something else about Chuck. I suppose at the time I thought that Chuck wanted to paddle with me just for the sake of making the team. And now that we had failed to qualify in slalom, I imagined that that would be the last I would see of him. So as we drove back to Washington DC, disappointed and dejected, you can imagine my surprise when he suggested that we try to make the team in downriver C-2. It was surprising for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I had never been a serious downriver competitor. To this day, I am not quite sure why Chuck suggested this, but it was consistent with his ethic of commitment: he offered to paddle with me for the season, wanted to paddle with me, and wanted to see the season through to a successful completion in whatever form that might take.

Well, Chuck and I trained for a couple of days in downriver before I realized that I was doing this only to make the team, not because I really enjoyed it. I wanted to tell Chuck that I really was not interested in training downriver, but I was afraid to. My anxiety was not based on the fear of quitting, but rather in the entirely mistaken belief that Chuck needed me to make the team.

I had greatly underestimated him. When I finally told him that I did not want to train in downriver, he was completely understanding, even relieved. Chuck went on to make the team that year in downriver C-1, and he finished 4th in the World Championships, and earned a silver medal in the team race with Kent Ford on Johnny Evans; a far better finish than I think the two of us could have managed in a C-2. As I think about this, I believe that Chuck wanted to continue paddling with me out of commitment and obligation. He must've known that given his physical condition and skill he would fare very well as an individual competitor.

I learned many things in my brief season of training with Chuck, principally among them the value and joy of persistence, dedication, and commitment. I have paddled with a number of C-2 partners over the years, but I can say that my brief time with Chuck was by far the most pleasurable experience in this realm.

That was my last year of training. Our lives moved in different directions, although we kept in touch. For the fun of it, we raced together in Kernville in 1988, easily winning the C-2 class. Although victory was easy because there was not much competition, I fondly remember Chuck's comment after the race that he felt like we had just been in the boat the day before; that we had picked up where we left off on our last run in the team trials in 1979. For my part, it was also memorable for the grace and thrill of being on the water with Chuck, albeit very briefly, on a beautiful afternoon. It was the last time I ever paddled with Chuck.

Over the years, I've witnessed from afar Chuck's forays into many other sports. Although I am sure he was quite good at all of these sports, he usually was not the absolute best. Perhaps this is the greatest testimony to his place as an athlete: he pursued sports because he loved them; he loved the discipline, the competition, the thrill of using his body and his mind to a singular purpose. It didn't really matter in the end if he won or not, so long as he maintained the purity of his pursuit and the pleasure derived from it. I can think of few athletes for whom I can make the same claim.

With all of this as background, I can only imagine what a struggle the last six months of his life must have been. How unfair for a person whose life was so intimately tied to the use of his body to have that so unceremoniously taken away. I remember the last conversation I had with him, by telephone when he was in the hospital. He was much more frustrated with his inability to use his body than he was afraid of his mortality-or so it seemed. How could a person so constitutionally incapable of quitting accept such a fate?

Life's final journey is often the most revealing. And for Chuck, it was also a very private journey. I wish I could have been there to learn a few more lessons I know he would have taught me. I don't know if those lessons would have included perseverance, acceptance, or perhaps something else that I can't imagine as a person who is still living on the opaque side of my mortality. I can guess that mortality's force must have confounded Chuck as perhaps the only force he'd faced in life that was more determined than he was; a force that he could neither accept nor ignore, but whose outcome was, at least medically, without doubt. But I also imagine that he never accepted this outcome, as giving up was not in Chuck's constitution. Like many other races in his life that he knew he wouldn't win, I suspect that his internal compass prevented him straying from the commitment to finish honorably. Although he could not cancel his meeting with death, I'm sure he went into that meeting on his own terms, and true to his values.

About John Hefti
My professional life is something like Chuck’s sports life was: highly varied. When I trained with Chuck way back when, I was a professional ballet dancer. That job certainly counts as the most physically demanding endeavor I have ever done. Shortly thereafter, I went to college and then graduate school, to study mathematics and physics. I worked briefly as an academic, but found my true professional calling as an entrepreneur. I went to medical school, and since then I have been involved in starting companies in the biotechnology and medical devices area. Currently I straddle the two worlds of the startup entrepreneur and venture capitalist. I can't quite make the entire leap to being an investor rather than an entrepreneur, but I do spend a lot of time looking at new companies for the venture world. I live in San Francisco with my wife and two kids -- ages 13 and 15 --and still get on the river fairly often. Now that my son is very much into river kayaking, and is getting pretty good at it, he is dragging me down the harder rivers.

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