After just two years kayaking, Jeff Smoke qualified for the U.S. Olympic team.
Published 7:42 pm Wednesday, July 14, 2004
By By ADAM FISHER / Niles Daily Star
Even though both his parents made the Olympics in kayaking, Jeff Smoke was never interested in the sport as a kid.
He tried it out briefly when he was nine, competing in the 14 and under division of the national kayak championships in Chicago, but, at the time, felt the sport wasn't for him.
That's why he was surprised that, when he decided to take up kayaking three years ago, it came so naturally to him. Now, with less than half the experience of other competitors, Smoke is on his way to Athens, Greece as a member of the U.S. Olympic Sprint Kayaking team.
He will compete for a gold medal in the two-man 1000-meter sprint kayak. Sprint kayaking is a straight race done in flat, calm water, as opposed to slalom kayaking, which is done in a zigzag pattern in rapids.
Smoke said he's excelled at kayaking because he's always been athletic. Once he shunned the sport as a kid, he turned to triathlons. He won two national triathlon championships, one at the age of 10, the other at 19.
Smoke also played tennis at Buchanan High School (Class of 1996) and ice hockey with the team at Clay High School.
Smoke's mother, Marcia Smoke, who won a bronze at the 1964 Games, said she wasn't disappointed when her son chose not to kayak. She said she never wanted to pressure him into the sport.
After Smoke graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 with a degree in finance, he took a job in Chicago. To stay fit and competitive, he began training in the kayak at a boat club in town.
It turned out Smoke enjoyed that sport and excelled at it. After just six months of practice, he competed in the U.S. Sprint Kayak National Championship in the summer of 2001.
He didn't win, but he performed well enough that the coach of the U.S. National Team asked Smoke to train full-time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego.
Though Smoke said he was surprised at how quickly he picked up kayaking, his tennis coach at Buchanan, Steve Bender, wasn't.
Bender said he saw the same competitiveness and drive to exceed from Smoke in high school. Smoke went from No. 4 singles as a freshman to No. 1 singles as sophomore at Buchanan, Bender said.
While Smoke has been training for less than four years, he said many kayakers have been in the sport for 10 to 15 years.
Having a family rich in kayaking tradition has helped Smoke, Bender said. Besides the 1964 Olympics in which she medalled, Marcia Smoke also went to the 1968 and 1972 Games in sprint kayaking. Smoke's father also made the 1964 Olympic team in the same event.
But what Smoke's mother has contributed most to her son, Bender said, is not teaching him the mechanics of kayaking, but teaching him how to train.
Now that he's followed his parents in making an Olympic team, Smoke said he still isn't getting any kayaking advice from his mother. Instead, she is giving him advice on the Games themselves.
Smoke's goal is to make it to the finals in his event. To reach the final race, Smoke and his partner must finish high enough in the preliminaries on Aug. 25 and the semifinals on Aug. 27.
The top nine kayak teams make it to the final race Aug. 29.
Smoke said he likes his chances to make the finals. He and his partner made the finals in June at Duisberg, Germany, a race which typically features most of the teams that will be at the Olympics.
While Smoke has no expectations of getting a medal to match his mom's, Bender said winning one is a good possibility for his former pupil.