In a lifetime of paddling, Steve Kelly has been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. He’s competed in two Olympic Games and officiated at three others. He qualified for the U.S. team in 1980 and ended up in the middle of a geopolitical maelstrom, forced to sit out the games when President Carter declared a boycott. He was at the Munich games when an act of terrorism changed the Olympic landscape forever.
But if you want to hear Kelly get emotional, ask him about the 1988 fire that destroyed the Inwood Canoe Club.
“I was at a friend’s house out in Rockaway,” he recalls on the phone from Indianapolis, where he lives now. “I remember him getting a call at his house and he gave me the phone.” The voice on the other end said there had been a big fire at the club. Kelly and his wife drove straight over.
“I remember parking up on Dyckman Street and walking down and seeing the gate, and then seeing the club–completely destroyed,” he says. “The only thing you saw was the structural ironwork all bent, lying on top of the decks.”
“I remember it shaking me,” he says, sounding a little shaken even now.
For Kelly, Inwood Canoe Club was a second home. He started paddling here as a kid in 1966. The club was a training ground for canoe racers, and signing up was no small commitment.
“I would say typically we were working on the water three days a week after school and both days on weekends,” he recalls. “In the summer it was more of an every-day practice.”
When they weren’t paddling, they trained by running or playing soccer, or pumping iron in the club’s second floor training room.
Yes, I said second floor.
Back then, the whole space occupied by the current club was devoted to boat storage. In front of that boat shed, in the space between what’s now the front door and the road, was the boathouse.
The left side of the boathouse housed a meeting room. The right side featured a small bar and kitchen with a refrigerator and sink. In the back were a bathroom and the stairs to the second floor weight room.
Yes, I said bar.
“It was a very nice boathouse,” Kelly says.
When he arrived at his first Olympics in 1972, however, Kelly found himself up against competitors from even nicer boathouses.
“The people I was racing against were really much bigger than I was,” he laughs. “They had a lot more support staff and things of that nature. The reality was here I was training off this little club on Dyckman Street and these guys had training centers.”
Kelly raced in a four-man boat with three guys from Washington, DC. The Americans knew they weren’t serious medal contenders.
“We were trying to make the semifinals and we failed to do that,” he says. “We were outclassed.”
It was Kelly’s first trip outside the U.S., and he was thrilled by the Olympic Village and its sense of openness and global camaraderie. That all disappeared overnight during the second week of the Games.
“I had never seen a machine gun before, but we went down that morning to get on the bus in the garage underneath our building and all of a sudden there was a guy with a machine gun checking our credentials,” he says. “Same thing happened when we got to the venue and we said wait a second, something’s changing here.”
Only later did Kelly learn that members of a Palestinian terrorist group had slipped into the village and taken Israeli athletes hostage. Eleven athletes were killed in the attack known as the Munich Massacre. Some historians consider it the dawn of the modern era of terrorism. The Games, and the world, would never be the same.
Nowadays, Kelly is retired but he’s still paddling. He lives on a lake near Indianapolis and has a racing kayak, an aluminum canoe and a sit-on-top.
“The sport has singularly affected my life,” he says. “More than anything else.”
And it all started at a little boathouse on the Hudson.