Jamie McEwan (1952 – 2014)
Witness Post: James P. McEwan
Jamie McEwan was a college friend and wrestling teammate at Yale. He was also one of my college heroes. Although he became famous for his four decades of Olympic-level slalom racing in a single and double canoe, to me he was first a wrestler. He just happened to handle a canoe and a paddle with the power and control of the best water men on the planet.
Jamie McEwan, Captain, kneeling center
At the age of 20, on what some call his college “sabbatical’” year (1971-1972), Jamie would claim that he was a paddler first and a wrestler second. He had grown up canoeing and kayaking on rivers and lakes and he withdrew from Yale for a year to follow his dream for an Olympic medal. Jamie left New Haven and the US to train in another part of the world.
Jamie felt that moving to Europe to compete and train would give him a shot at a medal in the summer Olympics. I asked him, “So, Jamie, why Germany?” He said, “I have lost to these guys from West Germany and France and the Netherlands for years. The best slalom canoeists in the world are all paddling on the European circuit. If I wanted to win, I had to train and compete with the best paddlers. The US team said that I still had to qualify for the team, so I qualified in California, but for training, I asked a German canoeist to coach me. He agreed to, but only if I moved to West Germany to train with him. So I did.” Jamie’s brother, Tom, had taken the year off as well, but damaged his knee badly in training camp and did not qualify for the US team.
When Jamie returned to Yale after the Olympics, he infrequently talked about his experiences during that training year: living with a German family, learning enough of the language to get by, the grueling training schedule they kept, and the intense pressure leading up to the Olympics. He was entered in a solo paddling event (C-1), its first time in the Olympics, and he felt the heat of being alone against the clock and the river. It was one of the most intense years of Jamie’s life, but he could taste the medal before he wore it. “My brother put the idea in my head when I was 16 that we could compete in the Olympics and I thought, how cool is that!” Jamie always smiled while he told the stories of the ferocious paddling and the exhausting events in Munich, because it sparked joy. The canoeing heats were early in the Olympic competition schedule that year and he was glad to get into them in mid-August.
The paddling events were held on a man-made river, built especially for the Olympics by German engineers. Water from the Isar, a Bavarian river, was diverted into a special channel for the slalom course. The water levels were controlled through a viaduct with sophisticated valves and gates that would have made the Romans proud. Jamie worked harder than he had ever worked in his paddling career and he came home with some hardware: a bronze medal. He did not stick around long in Germany after the rowing events were over. He said he wanted to watch fellow Yalie, Frank Shorter, run in the marathon, but that event was not scheduled until the last day of the Olympics. He had some pressing projects and goals, such as wrestling, back in New Haven that he wanted to complete as he continued his college career.
Tragedy in Munich
The most memorable athletic moments of the ’72 Olympics were fractured by terrorism and violence. One afternoon hooded Palestinians kidnapped eleven of the Israeli athletes. The Summer Olympics in Munich will forever be marred by the kidnapping and eventual deaths of all 11 Israeli athletes, who perished on the airport tarmac in a hostage assault. The bold attack and assassinations were executed in prime time, with full view of the world audience. The haunting images of the men with dark eye slits in their head covering caps, still are vivid in the memory banks of all who saw it on TV and read about the Olympic Tragedy Games in the news stories.
Shorter went on to win the Marathon that years, running just days after the tragedies as a tribute to the athletes who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
Back in New Haven
When the class of 1976 arrived in the wrestling room in the fall of ’72, Coach Bert Waterman told us that there was a good 167 pounder, Jamie McEwan, who had taken the previous year off to perform in another sport. Coach said that his brother, Tom, had been the captain of his Yale wrestling team. Must be a pretty competitive family.
The McEwan boys grew up in Olney, Maryland, and spent many waking hours paddling with the family on the Potomac River. The McEwan’s father set up a canoe course near a small set of rapids called Mill Valley Camp, on the Maryland/Virginia state line. Jamie and Tom were both multi-sport (wrestling and canoeing) scholar athletes, who had attended high school at the well-known prep school, Landon School in Bethesda. Although Jamie claims to have been clumsy in his youth, his high school team mates claim otherwise. He was an exceptional individual and team player. Both McEwan boys graduated at the top of their classes and matriculated at Yale.
It seemed pretty crazy to the wrestlers in our college class that a guy would be able to take a sabbatical from a varsity sport like wrestling for a year and then return to the team to compete at the NCAA level. That said, we had never met anyone like Jamie McEwan before.
Yale’s Wrestling Tradition
Yale Wrestling Team (1904) Doyle twins George & Louis (seated center) were National Champions
Yale wrestled in the first intercollegiate bout versus Columbia in 1903, beginning the modern era of college wrestling. The program stopped at the NCAA level in 1992, and although there is a club program at Yale today, it is not a “player” in the college sport any longer.
At one time Yale could compete among the best college wrestling programs in the country. From 1902 – 1906, for example, George and Louis Doyle were two phenomenal wrestlers from Bath High School in Maine. George had a collegiate record of 100 – 1, winning four national championships. He was the first college wrestler to accomplish that feat. George went on to win a gold medal in his weight class in the 1908 Olympics, held in London. He was later a school head at Milton Academy for many years, and the coaching of wrestling was part of his duties. And although there was a long dry spell in Yale wrestling prowess from the Doyle brothers to the 1970’s, there were some notable champions along the way. Yale had an NCAA runner ups (Larry Pickett – 1941) who refereed for many years, an Andy Fitch who was an NCAA Champion in 1959, and an All-American, Tom McEwan in 1968.
The Captain of the Yale Wrestling Team in 1972 – 1973 was a heavyweight named Tim Karpov, an All-American junior with a ferocious temper. In those years of NCAA Division I competition, Yale placed among the top teams in the country. In the years of 1970-1976, Yale produced one NCAA champion — Jim Bennett (142) — and several other All-Americans — Tim Karpov, Alan Gaby, Chris Legg, Marty Schwartz, Jeff Spendelow, and Neal Brendel. With team points coming in tournaments from many weight classes (Bill Gamper, Brian Robb, Mike Poliakoff, Ken Stewart, and Kent Weichmann), we were considered an Ivy League contender, an Eastern dark horse, and an NCAA surprise.
For five years, however, even with a year off, Jamie McEwan was the heart and soul of the wrestling team.
Jamie was a handsome guy, despite the broken noses (he wore a face mask protector for most of one season) and the many bumps and bruises all over his body. His most remarkable feature, though, was Jamie’s unusual, cartoon-like swagger. Year and year of paddling had overdeveloped one side of his torso with bulging consequences. Jamie’s right shoulder, biceps and chest were the size and muscle-strength of a body builder, while his left side was almost normal. He lumbered like Popeye on one side and glided like Olive Oil on the other, so that his gait was lop-sided. His legs were strong, but not exceptionally so. He was never Wimpy; instead most of the time his wrestling stance included a ramrod straight back. When he went off the mat while wrestling, he returned with confidence that made him appear to be “all that.” He was all business in matches, but he was also perpetually collegial with his teammates. His broad smile, visible from across the practice room or across the courtyard, always gave him away as a gentle spinach lover rather than a vicious Brutus.
The vicious Brutus on the team was Neal Brendel, who often brutalized his wrestling opponents and partners, even during practice sessions and take-down drills. Neal had one speed: all out! Marty Schwartz and Cliff Wilson were wise enough to stake their weight class (158) as too light to wrestle with Neal. Even when they were overweight, Marty and Cliff did their darnedest not to partner with Brendel. That declaration helped extend their wrestling careers considerably. Screams from Neal’s side of the practice room, were ignored by Coach Waterman, especially when Brendel and Karpov squared off. The shrieks were intense. Jamie hated wrestling Neal as much Kent Weichmann, Ken Stewart, Jim Simpson, Jack Moses, Joe Cooper, Sam Teeple, Frank Jackson, and the rest of us heavier guys, because Jamie knew he would finish practice with a hyper-extended elbow, broken nose, or flesh wound of some kind to show for the effort. Partnering for drills with Jamie, on the other hand, was a pleasant experience all things considered. He could crank it down a gear and go half speed which helped you learn the move Waterman was drilling. Neal never mastered that lower gear.
Ignore the Press Clippings
In a match against Penn, Jamie was matched up against a guy who had won the Pan American Games for the US in freestyle AND Greco-Roman. I thought, from the article in Amateur Wrestling News and the quotations from the coach at Penn, Larry Lauchle, that this kid was a prized recruit on his way to stardom. Jamie took the news stories in stride — he ignored them. When it came time to wrestle Penn, Jamie dominated the match right from the start. He scored a major decision. Walking off the mat, he said to Coach Waterman, “I should have pinned him, sorry Coach.”
Jamie had been voted by his teammates as the top freshman wrestler, he took the next year off to canoe and compete in the Olympics. Even with the year off from wrestling he was voted the best sophomore wrestler. He was a steady and quiet leader on the team. We elected him Captain of the team in his senior year (1974-1975), which turned out to be an exceptional one for the Bulldogs.
Early in the season we made a swing through Pennsylvania and wrestled Lehigh, Temple, Penn State, West Chester, and Lock Haven. It was a grueling trip, with Jamie paired up against freshman Mark Lieberman (future NCAA Champion from Lehigh) and Kent Weichmann wrestling against Mike Lieberman, Mark’s older brother. Yale lost both individual bouts and the dual meet. The road trip went downhill and then uphill from there. Lehigh and Penn State were too strong head to head for us that year and we left Bethlehem and Happy Valley in sour moods. We spiced up the trip with some good pizza (New Haven-style in West Chester) and some nice retribution (we spanked Temple, West Chester and Lock Haven), riding high in our Chieppo bus with Ray.
Jamie McEwan’s was my roommate that trip and I wrestled heavyweight for some matches when Neal Brendel, Jamie McEwan, or Kent Weichmann were not wrestling. In the match against Lock Haven, I executed a shoulder roll and my opponent lowered his big belly and crushed me. I fought through the roll and pinned my lardish opponent, but not before the damage was done. Trainer Al Batepaglia diagnosed it on the spot (‘sternum-clavicle separation’ — aka broken collar bone). I would be out for 6 weeks or longer, depending on my compliance with the procedures to get well. The adult beverages at the post-match party flowed smoothly and freely that night. Too freely and too late for me. At the 5:30am wake-up call I was semi-conscious and definitely hung over. It was also mighty early. As I reached over for the phone with my hurt arm, a bolt of pain coursed through my body. I shrieked in agony. Jamie, then fully awake, answered the phone and helped me maneuver. He handed me some Tylenol and put my arm in a sling. He was the perfect gentleman and helped me dress and pack up. On the return trip to New Haven, Jamie again helped me with my bags and my dangling arm as we went to our colleges.
Going into the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Tournament, we were near the top of the Ivy’s again and had a good shot at sending a few weight classes through to Nationals. We always expected Jamie to win and he did win most of them, but when it came time for tournaments, he was often outmatched and did not fair as well. With Marty Schwartz, Jim Bennett, Bill Gamper, and Craig Davis doing so well in the middle and light weights, there was a lot of pressure on the upper weights to equal the output, however, only Neal Brendel (and Tim Karpov) came through consistently. Wrestling is a tough physical sports, of course. But it is toughest mentally. Waterman often said that wrestling challenged our gray matter more than any sport. Jamie thought that canoeing was the most mentally challenging. I guess they were both right.
Jamie losing back points against Harvard, 1975
Jamie was an English major at Yale and he always seemed to be writing. On the bus rides, he was writing. In the hotel rooms, he was writing. I was never quite sure what he was writing, but he got so absorbed in it, he was difficult to bring back to the present. Before the era of iPods and headphones, Jamie would ignore the noise of the bus and read and write. Lost in reverie, he was in a trance-like state for many minutes on end. When he would snap out of it, he smiled again and squinted his eyes into little slits of joy. He always seemed to like what he was thinking and writing and reading, and those qualities shone through.
The Other McEwan at Yale
Tom McEwan on Liquid Adventure Trip
The year before Jamie graduated, we had the pleasure of going to a mid-season wrestling tournament at Montgomery County Community College in Bethesda, Maryland. Several things happened in that Maryland gym that marked milestones for Yale Wrestling. Jamie’s older brother, Tom, joined the Yale Club team and competed with us. I lost to a guy from East Carolina in the second round and watched while Neal Brendel, Jim Bennett and Tom McEwan each won their weight classes. Tom said he was in good paddling shape but not great wrestling shape. He could have fooled me. He won his matches handily with some slick moves that defied his years past college.
During one of Jim Bennett’s matches Coach Waterman got so angry at the ref’s he threw his chair across the gym. The referee ejected Coach from the building, though he kept yelling and heckling the ref from the exit door. Bennett said he had never had a coach who cared that much about him. We all esteemed Waterman for his passion and his fire. He was a formidable man and a good coach.
Neal Brendel had not cut his typical 30 pounds (from 220 to 190) to get to his fighting weight and for the tournament he was wrestling Heavyweight. In the finals of the tournament he met a 350 pound wrestler from Cleveland State. His name was Chuck Erhardt and he had been an NCAA All American. Coach Waterman advised, “Whatever you do, don’t get underneath this guy. He’ll crush you.” Neal ignore the advice and on the whistle he dove in for an ankle. As Erhardt tried to collapse on Brendel, Neal used a knee lock that made Erhardt topple over like a felled tree. Tom McEwan and I sat there in amazement. It sounded as if Brendel, like a lumberjack with an ax, had broken Erhardt’s leg. Having personally butted heads with Neal and split my forehead in two, I knew his leg dive was formidable, but when going against an opponent who has 130 pounds on you, that feat was extraordinary.
Tom said he, as Captain of the Yale wrestling team, had given the newly appointed Coach Waterman a tough go at things that first year. Tom had really liked Henry “Red” Campbell, the coach Waterman had replaced, and he was not happy to see Campbell replaced. I am glad the Tom McEwan and Coach Waterman mended fences, as they are both quality people and hard charging athletes who demand the most from themselves and those around them.
Tom McEwan getting ready to paddle
Get Out the Vote
Marty Schwartz feels that it was Jamie’s influence that made him captain of the 1976 wrestling team. Marty remembers Jamie coming up to him prior to the vote and asking how I would feel about being voted captain. Marty quipped, “Since being elected Yale Captain has been the highlight of my otherwise dull and mundane life, I have been forever thankful to Jamie.” Marty thinks about Yale wrestling, which, like many college wrestling programs has been relegated to club status. Most of us former wrestlers think about the sport often, and watch the NCAA’s and high school matches to satisfy our love of the sport.
Marty also recalls some McEwan stories he told Jim Bennett and him, while driving them from New Haven to Maryland during their freshman year spring break. Bennett and Schwartz stayed with the McEwans for the night and then proceeded to put out a thumb and hitchhike the rest of the way to the Sunshine Open in Miami, Florida. Marty remembers the McEwan lift as the best part of the trip, because they were arrested for illegal hitchhiking somewhere on the back-roads of Virginia. Not exactly a scene out of the movie Deliverance, it was still a memorable spring break.
Write and Paddle
After college Jamie married Sandra Boynton, who had graduated from Yale in Jamie’s original class, the class of 1974. As Sandra put it, “I married tall, swarthy and cheerfully subversive Yale wrestling captain/1972 Olympic bronze medalist in Whitewater Canoe Slalom (singles), Jamie McEwan.” The couple moved to the foothills of the Berkshires and raised a family in rural New England. Sandra used the family barn as her workshop and studio, and she added her own whimsical touches (it is perhaps the only studio barn in America with a hippopotamus weather vane).
Sandra went on to author and illustrate over fifty children’s books and seven general audience books, including five New York Times Bestsellers. With more than 60 million copies of her books sold, Sandra’s works are extraordinarily popular and celebrated. Her cat, sheep, cow and hippo images were everywhere on cards and posters and became wildly successful. Sandra also wrote (with Michael Ford) and produced five albums of “renegade children” songs. Three of the albums have been certified Gold [over 500,000 copies sold] and one “Philadelphia Chickens” was nominated for a Grammy and has been certified Platinum [over 1 million copies sold].
Jamie was a children’s author as well, though his works were not as popular as Sandra’s were. One children’s book, “If at First” (1980), was written by Jamie and illustrated by Sandra, a great collaborative work. The story follows the tale of a determined mouse who tries, tries, and tries again to move a lazy elephant up a hill. When five ring fever struck again, the family moved to Europe and lived in the French Pyrenees for the year, 1991-1992 so that Jamie could train for the Barcelona Olympics, this time in doubles canoe with Lecky Haller. (They came in 4th.) Over time the couple “collaborated on four perfect children and two quirky books: The Story of Grump and Pout, Crown 1983 (out of print); and The Heart of Cool, Atheneum 2001.” The couple collaborated on the names of their children, alternating McEwan and Boynton last names as they arrived healthily on the scene.
The four beautiful children love to write and paddle, naturally.
Jamie bragged that Sandra’s and his children (Caitlin, Keith, Devin, and Darcy) would be far smarter and more talented than their parents, but that sounded a lot like Jamie’s overly modest and proud papa sides showing through. The family spent a year in France with Jamie following his Five Ring Fever in 1998. Jamie, showing his sartorial flair, is the one in the beret above.
Jamie and child, in tow, going for an early paddle
The Real Waterman
The last time many of us saw Jamie was at the memorial service for Bert Waterman in New Haven, Connecticut. Bert had an extra special place in my heart because he had kindly picked me to be his graduate assistant on the wrestling team for two years, when I returned to Yale for an MBA. The stipend was small, but meaningful to a struggling graduate student. The Waterman family members accepted me as one of their own. I am forever grateful.
The service for Coach Waterman was held at Ray Thompkins House at Yale. Bert’s wife, Georgia, came to the memorial service, along with their daughter, Candace. About 30 wrestlers showed up for the ceremony, including Jim Bennett, Neal Brendel, Marty Schwartz, Bill Gamper, Frank Krajci, and Chris Legg. There were a lot of other wrestlers who had been coached by Bert, and impacted by his mentoring along the way. I had written to Georgia a letter of condolences, but did not have much to say at the gathering. Jamie, on the other hand, had written a beautiful letter in Bert’s honor, which he read aloud. It perfectly captured why we loved that quirky coach so much. We felt as if he could see right through us and he wanted us to do our best — always. Waterman was a hard man to disappoint.
At the Waterman memorial, I commented to Jamie that I had loved seeing him on the Curt Gowdy’s American Sportsman special as he was paddling solo behind the large rafts as the ABC team navigated the giant rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. First seeing the special, I raved to anyone who would listen, that I wrestled with that guy, back at Yale. Jamie downplayed it all and said that he was lucky not to spill over during that trip, which has some outstanding rapids in a class all their own. Gowdy delivered a line in the ABC special which had words to the effect “McEwan is the first person to take a canoe through the Grand Canyon without capsizing.” Jamie was always humble, even while performing the extraordinary.
McEwan writing in one of his canoe trip journals
Love of the Water
No matter how much we might want to keep Jamie in our wrestling world, it was the water world that he craved and sought. He could not stay away. Five ring fever and high water were in the air.
At different times Jamie paddled “alpine style” whitewater expeditions in Mexico, Bhutan, British Columbia and Tibet. Jamie and Tom McEwan were both members of the Tibetan expedition in 1998 which ran through the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, which is considered by many canoeists as the “Mount Everest” of wild rivers. A link to view some of the expeditions rapids is attached below:
The expedition is the subject of two books: The Last River by Todd Balf, and Courting the Diamond Sow by Wickliffe Walker. The paddlers encountered unanticipated high water in the Tibetan mountains that season and the trip ended in tragedy when teammate Doug Gordon failed to boof a waterfall. He missed a critical kayak roll, submerged, failed to surface, and lost his life.
Devin McEwan in front and Jamie in back during C-2 Slalom race
The rest of the world has gotten to know Jamie as an one of Americas best slalom canoeists. Jamie was a multi-time World Champion in slalom canoeing and for those feats he is enshrined with an elite group of athletes. He competed in many Olympics and World Cup events over the years, even canoeing with his son, Devin, in the 2000’s.
Jamie McEwan became an acclaimed sports photographer over time, as his photographs picture some dramatic moments of man versus the elements in Slalom events. He must have been channeling Curt Gowdy, as his photos are among the more pure meetings of white water, canoe and paddlers. See for yourself.
In 2009 Jamie was diagnosed by his doctors as having contracted Multiple Myeloma, which he first noticed after suffering from severe back pain. He did not allow the diagnosis to get him down for long and he redoubled his efforts to promote and speak for the sport of canoeing, making speeches to any organization who would listen to his message. He was an impassioned salesman for the sport and it showed, especially in his TEDx Talk he gave at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut just before the 2012 Olympic Trials. Jamie’s son, Devin, was trying out for the US team and Jamie demonstrated his final case of “Five Ring Fever” which overtakes many former Olympians every four years, when the games roll around. Jamie called his story, “The Accidental Olympian.” From our perspective, there was nothing accidental about it. Like fellow Eli mermen, Don Schollander or Steve Clark, Jamie was the Quintessential Olympian:
Jamie McEwan at his humble best
The creeping cancer continued to plagued Jamie for five years until the deadly disease took over. To the regret of everyone who knew Jamie, he died on June 14, 2014. We miss him very much.
From the Team USA Athletes website, is the following:
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland
Current Residence: Lakeville, Connecticut
College/school: Yale University (1975, literature); before that Landon School
Club/team: Originally CCA; now H.A.C.K.S.Olympic results:
- 1972 Munich Olympics, 3rd (Bronze medal) in C1 class – the first time slalom canoe/kayak was part of the Olympic program/
- Canoe Slalom was not part of the Olympics between 1972 and 1992
- 1992 Barcelona Olympics, 4th, racing in C2 with Lecky Haller
- 1972 and 1975 C1 National Champion
- 1987 Bourg St. Maurice World Championships, 2nd place in C2 Class, racing with Lecky Haller
- Also with Lecky: Winner of the 1988 World Cup; Second in the 1989 World Cup
- Separately, Captain of Landon School Wrestling team, and winner of the National Prep School Championship in 1970. Also Captain of the Yale wrestling team, 1975.
Honors/awards: Corning Award for most improved paddler, 1985.
Family: wife Sandra Boynton, children Caitlin McEwan, Keith Boynton, Devin McEwan, Darcy Boynton (we alternated last names).
Job: freelance writer
Hobbies: Reading. Coaching. Maintaining slalom gates.
Trivia: son Devin is a U.S. National Team canoeist
What have you been up to since you finished competing? Raising four children, writing articles and short stories and memoirs, cooking dinners.
“Wrestling, Freestyle” by Michael B. Poliakoff from Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present, Vol. 3, eds. David Levinson and Karen Christensen (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1996).