It was just for fun.
Joe Jacobi and Matt Taylor, two single slalom whitewater canoeists and longtime friends, were biding their time at the 2001 U.S. Nationals in Warsau, Wis., when they decided to take advantage of the open format, borrowed a boat and entered the double slalom whitewater event. They finished in second place without a single practice run.
Now, here they are, three years and countless practice runs later, representing the U.S. in the men's C-2 (doubles) slalom in Athens. And it's still about the fun.
Sure, the 34-year-old veteran Olympians wouldn't mind seeing all their hard work pay off with a medal. But with retirement waiting at the end of their last race, they're more intent on savoring every moment, secure in what they've accomplished in the sport and appreciative of what the sport has given them -- a second chance.
Two weeks after their serendipitous run, Jacobi was ready quit competitive paddling. A gold medalist in C-2 with partner Scott Straussbaugh at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Jacobi had decided to venture out on his own as a soloist. But after failing to qualify for the 1996 and 2000 Games, "I began to see I had gone about as far as I could go in C-1 (singles)," he said. Friends began sending him not-so-subtle messages. You've still got that gold, they'd tell him, nothing wrong with stopping now. The 2001 World Championships were practically in his backyard, on the Oconee River in Tennessee, the venue for the Atlanta Games, a perfect place to call it a career.
Around the same time, Taylor was coming to terms with his own future. A 2000 Olympian in C-2, Taylor had spent a year living in Sydney after the Games and welcomed his first child in June, 2001. After switching to C-1 -- due in part to the retirement of his partner, Lecky Haller -- Taylor narrowly missed qualifying for the 2001 national team in C-1 while in Warsau, and had begun pondering his next step.
Jacobi, however, never got the chance to say goodbye to canoeing. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States cancelled the World Championships, and they were never rescheduled.
So there he was, three weeks later, asking his coach, Yves Narduzzi, his thoughts about paddling C-2 with Taylor.
"As long as your reasons are right," Narduzzi told him.
How could they be wrong? He and Taylor had been friends since they both hit the junior circuit back in the late 1980s, they enjoyed spending time together and the fact they didn't live near each other -- Jacobi lives in Ducktown, Tenn., and Taylor is a teacher in Atlanta -- meant their practice sessions would be focused and efficient. And if either them were going to continue, it would only be with each other.
The two men were confident of what they could accomplish together. They were also aware of the sacrifices another run at an Olympic bid would entail. More rivers. More traveling. More money. More time away from home. They struck a deal with their wives. They'd train for a year and re-evaluate their goals after their first event of the 2002 season -- the World Cup in Augsburg, Germany.
It was the second race in the World Cup series, but because Augsburg was also the sight of the 2003 World Championship, an Olympic qualifying race, the event drew a full field. Jacobi and Taylor's eighth-place finish in the semifinal earned them a spot in the 10-boat final, after which their times would be combined to determine their overall finish. Their last race boosted them to a fourth-place finish, one second off the podium and high enough to continue pursuing a berth on the 2004 Olympic team.
The performance of that day, however, belonged to the Hochschorner twins, Peter and Pavol, who had won the Olympic gold medal in 2000 at the age of 21. The Slovakian brothers turned a 10th-place finish in the semifinals into a first place finish overall with a torrid run in the final.
At the end of the day, Pavol Hochschorner, the bowman, approached Jacobi and congratulated him.
"He said to me, 'Today, you are the winner,' " Jacobi recalled. "It's the most moving thing another athlete has ever said to me."
It was a beneficial encounter that fostered a friendship between Jacobi, Taylor and the Hochschorner twins, who are involved first-hand in the latest developments in canoe design. Unlike other canoeists, who either train alone or are hesitant about implementing another tandem's techniques, Jacobi and Taylor routinely observe others -- especially the Hochschorners -- during workouts and adapt innovations to their benefit.
"I'm very aware of how different (doubles) boats are than they were 10 years ago, the coaching, the level of technology," Jacobi said. "You have to keep up to be one of the best, not an old dog with old tricks going against new dogs."
Meanwhile, the old dogs -- Jacobi and Taylor are the elder statesmen on the U.S. Olympics canoe and kayaking teams -- have been keeping up with the new dogs just fine; the duo spent time training with the Hochschorners at the Olympic venue in Athens before heading to Prague for next weekend's World Cup race.
"We haven't learned everything there is to learn," Jacobi said. "Our focus is one race at a time between now and Athens. It will be there, whatever we have in us will be there.
"We may be the oldest paddlers on the team, but we're young at heart on the water."