Back in high school, we had a couple of Jamaican guys on our team. They were the best players in the league, but also the most willing to take dives and then complain to the refs. I loathed it. “If I had half your talent,” I’d mutter from the bench, “I’d quit falling down and just try to beat my guy.”
Years later I remember angrily switching off the 2006 World Cup because every play seemed to end with a grown man falling down without being touched, then writhing around like a child. It wasn’t soccer, it was acting. In basketball, there’s an even more fitting word for it: flopping.
The reason it bothered me more than legitimately dirty play like holding jerseys or throwing elbows is that diving is quitting. By going to the ground, you’re letting your opponent take the ball with no one covering him — and betting that the refs will bail you out. You’re not only dishonest — you’re giving up.
Years later I discovered the equivalent behavior in whitewater slalom racing: sniting. Sniting, loosely translated, means sulking. And even more than diving or flopping, to snit means to quit. Sniters miss a gate or even touch a gate and they throw a fit. They smack their boats with their hand. They curse. They float the rest of the way down, not even trying anymore, pouting like crybabies. Boy, I hated sniters — almost as much as I hated divers or floppers. Like in soccer, it was especially hard to stomach because it was usually talented guys doing it.
One of the worst sniters I knew was also one of the best boaters I knew. Once during a workout in Charlotte, this young man became incensed at a minor mistake, stopped paddling, made a face, and — “THWACK!” — smacked a slalom gate with his paddle like a wiffle ball, sending it flying. (My guess is that he’d never actually had to string slalom gates himself, and had no idea how much work it is.)
Another time, he snited during a race, floating past the final five or six gates. His cynical laugh as he crossed the line — “Well, I knew that run was over!” — was incomprehensible to a middling racer like me who’d never get within smelling distance of the podium at a national race. “But it wasn’t over,” I wanted to say. “If you’d just swallowed your pride and gone back for that gate, you still could have gotten second.” His indifference toward what came so easily to him — and what would never come to me — was like a slap in the face.
But it’s people like that — the floppers, the divers, and the sniters — who made someone like the late Adam Clawson stand out.
You know how if you watch an athlete enough, really study his every move, sometimes you feel like you know him, even if you never met him? That’s Adam Clawson to me. I never knew him. He was gone from slalom four years before I started racing. But his image lived on in the worn out old VHS tapes that no one else cared about but which I studied scrupulously as a young racer. I knew his techniques inside and out. I can even still remember the colors of his boats by different years. I loved the all-black one he had sometime in the late 1980s, which surfaced on some truly obscure race videos I used to greedily inhale.
Adam Clawson died a few weeks ago. A lot of boaters don’t know his name anymore, but more should. Not just because he raced in the Olympics twice, won a World Championship medal, or even because he laid down two of the greatest runs in American slalom history that no one ever talks about.
As the old saying goes, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.
No, you should know about Adam Clawson because of the way he raced — especially on those two runs.
Run #1: The Flip (World Championships, 1991)
By 1991, the Americans had dominated the C-1 class for ten years, so for an American to be eight seconds ahead of the rest of the world with only two gates to go wasn’t unexpected. What was unexpected was the paddler: not Jon Lugbill or Davey Hearn or Jed Prentice, but 19 year-old Adam Clawson.
But ferrying toward those final two gates, Clawson flipped. By the time he rolled, he’d washed downstream of both gates. Immediately he faced a choice: try to scramble back upstream into an eddy and go back for the gates — which would surely take 10 or 15 seconds, destroying any chance of winning — or hesitate for even a second and be flushed downstream. It’s a decision that has to be instinctive, one that says a lot about how you’ve practiced, and even more about who you are as an athlete.
Watch the video: Clawson doesn’t hesitate. The second he’s back up, he’s clawing his way into the eddy. He’s tired, his lungs are burning, but quitting never crosses his mind. He finishes at 164 seconds, not perfect by any stretch, but good enough to beat all the world’s best boaters except one. If he hadn’t flipped, he’d have won big. But if he’d snited, he wouldn’t have stood on the podium at all.
I always loved this run. I loved how Clawson was still taking risks at the bottom of the course. And more than anything, I loved his determination to go back for the gate. “That’s what I’m going to do,” I told myself. “You always, ALWAYS, climb back up.” You do it because you never know — and also because it’s the right thing to do.
Clawson probably didn’t think much of it. But I always did.
Here’s the footage of the ferry:
Run #2: Acceptance (Olympics, 1996)
But sometimes you can’t climb back up.
Fast forward five years. It’s 1996 at the Olympic Games on Tennessee’s Ocoee River. Clawson is in almost the same situation: big race, final run, all the pressure is on, and he’s flying. He’s not up big this time — but after a slower start he’s gaining on 1992 Gold Medalist Lukas Pollert, the lanky Czech who is again leading the field. The crowd — which must have been loaded with friends and family, coming from Clawson’s hometown just an ninety minutes away — sees what’s happening and begins to roar as Clawson approaches the last rapid, Humongous.
The final move is strikingly similar to five years ago: a tough lefty off-side ferry all the way across the river to a small eddy that holds an upstream gate. Then a simple downstream gate in the current before the finish line.
It’s hard to tell exactly what happens, but Clawson loses his ferry angle; his bow is swept downstream, the current pulling him to low to make the eddy. You can see the panic on his face. He’s fighting and straining . . . If he can just power himself in there . . . His bow is IN, he’s going to make it!! . . . The crowd is roaring . . . “Yeahhhhhhh!!!!–Ohhhhhh . . .”
It’s over. He’s flushed downstream out the back of the eddy and unlike in 1991, there’s no humanly possible way to climb back up. To be this close to winning an Olympic medal on your home turf, only to see it slip away . . . that must have been the most excruciating feeling.
But the way Clawson reacts always amazed me. Instead of histrionics, or curse words, or some exaggerated display of “Why??” — all of which would be completely understandable — Clawson has a strange little smile on his face as he gathers himself in the eddy below. His expression is something like acceptance. He’s clearly stunned and maybe even a little sheepish as he acknowledges the crowd with a gracious wave. But as he rejoins the current and crosses the line, it’s almost as though he’s at peace. Did he feel peaceful knowing he’d put everything he had into his training and into this run? Did he feel okay, knowing that rivers are fickle, that sometimes your best falls short on a given day? Did he rest easy in that moment knowing that he’d done everything possible, planned and prepared the best he could over the last four years, and given it the best of who he was?
I can’t say for sure how Clawson felt. But I know I felt exactly this way as I drifted below the finish line, having missed a gate on my last run at the Olympic Trials in 2008, knowing that I’d retire from racing after that day without ever having made it close to the Olympics. In that moment I thought back to Clawson’s run, to his dignity and grace in defeat. You have to take pride in your efforts, and take the swells of fate and whitewater with a sheepish grin, a knowing smile, just as he did. You have to get to the end of the race knowing you did your best. Then you’re at peace with yourself. I know I was in that moment, I like to think he was too.
I love these two brilliant but flawed runs almost more than perfection because they’re human. Racers aren’t robots, and to me sometimes the most interesting moments happen when you watch someone respond to a mistake. Thinking about similar moments in my racing career reminds me of a Leonard Cohen lyric: “Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Sadly, Adam Clawson died last month at 44. This article from the Smoky Mountain News describes his battle with depression, a disease notoriously at odds with the qualities of resilience and inner peace that I read in these two slalom runs. Depression can magnify our imperfections and trick us into becoming harsh judges of ourselves. Its great trick is to make things feel hopeless — as though there’s no use in going back to make any of the gates you missed, because to do so would prove you’re not a perfect being. It causes us to doubt ourselves by zeroing in on our mistakes. No matter how well we’ve prepared, any missed gate is a fresh cause for self flagellation, falling deeper into a dark hole from which it’s impossible to feel a sense of inner peace with our efforts. It’s a dark, dark disease.
Even though I never got to paddle with Adam Clawson, I recognize his influence on my paddling — not just his paddling technique, but the way he raced. I don’t think I’d ever thought about any of this until just now, but I always loved those two runs, and reading about his death made me remember how much they’d influenced me on a deeper level without even realizing it.