From Sticks to Paddles: Lecky Haller '81

Lecky and Jamie McEwan (foreground) rowing at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
Lecky and Jamie McEwan (foreground) rowing at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Shoremen Lacrosse All-American Enjoyed Legendary Canoeing Career

"I do believe that having competed at the highest level in one sport enabled me to climb the ladder in another a lot easier." - Lecky Haller '81

Being a two-time All-American in collegiate lacrosse would be an impressive athletic career for most people, but for 1981 Washington College graduate Lecky Haller, that was just a prelude to a longer and even more storied career in another sport. A 15-time National Champion, nine-time World Championship medalist, and two-time Olympian, Lecky put together an outstanding career in competitive canoeing. 

Lecky Haller first learned to paddle a canoe at Camp Mondamin, a summer camp in North Carolina, when he was just seven years old. He later met John Burton, a fellow Camp Mondamin alum, who had paddled at the 1972 Olympics. "I knew right then that I wanted to be an Olympian, but in what sport?" he remembers. 

At the time, Lecky was, in his words, "consumed by lacrosse." He went on to enroll at Johns Hopkins University, playing lacrosse for the Blue Jays as a freshman. He then transferred to Washington College, where he spent three seasons playing for the Shoremen and earned All-America honorable mention in 1979 and All-America first team honors in 1980. He also played in two NCAA Tournaments with the Shoremen. After he had used his lacrosse eligibility, Haller did some distance canoe training while finishing his degree during the 1980-81 academic year.  

A month after his graduation Lecky watched his younger brother Fritz paddle at - and win - the 1981 Canoe Slalom World Championships in Wales. On the flight home, he proposed training in a double to Fritz with the hopes that they could compete together at the next World Championships in 1983. Fritz wanted to concentrate on singles instead, but offered to train Lecky, and despite his initial hesitation, the pair of brothers ended up rowing together. They won their first World Championship together in the C-2 event in 1983 after paddling together for just two years, a feat unheard of at the time.

After winning bronze medals together as part of the C-2 team event in 1985, Fritz retired from competitive paddling and Lecky began competing with a new partner, Jamie McEwan. That partnership led to both of them competing at the 1992 Olympic Games, one of Lecky's proudest moments.

"Whitewater Canoe/Kayak had not been contested for twenty years at the Olympic level," recalls Lecky. "It was a proud moment to enter the stadium in Barcelona at the opening ceremonies with the other 600 or so American athletics, including, of course, the Dream Team, among others.  I don't know if Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong will remember me as their teammates as well as I do them!"

Lecky and McEwan finished just off the podium in that Olympics, placing fourth. By that time, Fritz had returned to the sport - not as a paddler, but as a coach, and coached Lecky at the games. After the Olympics, McEwan retired from competition and Lecky was able to talk Fritz out of retirement.  "He had to make some changes in his life, though," says Lecky. "He had become a real coach - about 40 pounds overweight that is. In two years, he transformed himself into an elite athlete again."

By 1995, Lecky and Fritz (pictured paddling together below) were ranked second in the world, but an uncharacteristically poor performance at the United States team trials cost them a spot in the 1996 Olympics, though they eventually did reach a world ranking of number one.  Lecky did make it back to the Olympics in 2000 with a third partner and finished 15th at the age of 43.  That was his last international race after an impressive career of nearly two decades of international success.

The length of Lecky's career was legendary in paddling circles and is due in no small part to an intense dedication to training, a dedication which goes back to his days playing lacrosse at Washington College under then head coach and current athletic director Dr. Bryan Matthews.

"I remember one day in the fall I asked Bryan what more I could do to prepare for the spring.  He said, 'How 'bout, take a break? I don't want you to get burned out by spring.' Fat chance of that - for me if your loved lacrosse, you wanted to do it all the time. It was the same for paddling … I think one year the only day off was Christmas day - and we still got in a touch football game."

Despite being away from international competitions for a decade, Lecky has continued "to participate in just about everything related to [the outdoors]." He has also put together a coaching career which has included canoeing and kayaking in addition to football, wrestling, and lacrosse. He now lives in Asheville, NC, and will be coaching lacrosse at The Asheville School this spring. 

Through it all - the training, the championships, the Olympics, the competitions in over 40 countries - Lecky has developed and maintained a unique relationship with water. 

"I have come to the conclusion that water is life. I think everyone is drawn to water wether they are frightened of it or revel in it. One of the things I liked most about Washington College was the Chester River … I love the fact that water is maleable and soft while at the same time it is unyielding and can cut through steel. Paddling is like a song, a dance. The same piece of water is familiar, but it is always different. The challenges can be so great or so simple."