By Michael Gallant and Joe Schneider
Prague, July 12 (RFE/RL) -- Vaclav Chalupa prefers to make his own mark when it comes to rowing.
A silver medal winner in single sculls in the 1992 Olympics, the Czech rower feels more at home shaping his own destiny than as a member of a rowing team.
"I always wanted to do the single scull and train by myself," he told an RFE/RL correspondent in a recent interview at his home in Racice, where he rows on a canal to prepare for this year's Olympics in Atlanta. "This always really attracted me."
Much of the attraction rowing holds for Chalupa comes from his father, also Vaclav, who rowed in double sculls in the Olympics in 1960 and 1964. The elder Chalupa did not win any Olympic medals, but he did manage to inspire his son to take up the sport he loved.
The younger Chalupa began rowing in his hometown of Jindrichuv Hradec in 1980 and headed off on a journey which took him to his first Olympics eight years later.
Chalupa, 28, joined the Czech army when he was 19 and started to train with the Dukla Prague army club. He said, "I wanted to go as far as I could in the sport but at that time the thought of Olympics never even entered my mind." But a year later Chalupa was in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul as a member of an eight-man crew. The team finished ninth. "I don't have too many good memories from those Olympics," he said.
Chalupa's disappointing experience in Seoul motivated him to switch to single sculls and to take on former Olympian Zdenek Pecka as his new coach. Pecka won bronze medals in the Olympics in 1976 and 1980 and five medals in world championships. Pecka provided Chalupa with the training advice and support he needed to improve.
And the improvement came quickly. Chalupa won the first of three straight silver medals in 1989 in the world championships, and added another silver medal in the race which was held in Racice in 1993. He also has a bronze medal from the competition held in Finland last year.
"He (Pecka) uses the training methods on me that he used to use on himself," said Chalupa. "No one wrote out a regimen for him. He knows what type of training will have a specific effect on a person."
A training day for Chalupa consists of an hour and a half to two hours of rowing on the canal in the morning. He follows that with what he calls "supplementary training," which involves running, weight training or bike riding. After lunch he usually does another rowing session.
Chalupa's winter training program involves weight lifting, running and working out on rowing simulators, which indicate how hard Chalupa is rowing, and how many meters he covers.
Unlike less experienced athletes who have trouble finding sponsors, Chalupa gets a stipend from the Dukla army club, which is financed by the Ministry of Education. He works for the army club, but his job is "really my training and the sport."
But Chalupa's sport is not as popular as some others in which the athletes who compete receive more attention and more money. "Rowing is not as popular as football or ice-hockey. Those sports have a tremendous advantage. . . . the International Rowing Federation (FISA) is trying to keep the sport limited to an amateur level."
He continued, "No commercialization is allowed. If the rower can't win any money anywhere, he has to work. Now this sport is not subsidized as it used to be here. As a result he won't have time for the sport."
Despite his success, Chalupa admits that he sometimes endures criticism from people who ask him why he has yet to win a gold medal in the Olympics or the world championships. "A lot of time people
meet me and ask me why didn't you win. It was so close. If the other guy was better, there's not much you can do."
Chalupa says he wants to compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney before he retires. "Right now I don't even want to think about what I'll do when I finish with this but I think I would like to devote myself to something close to sport."
In the meantime, Chalupa carries his dreams and the best wishes of his neighbors in Racice. "People here are really nice. They kind of live rowing through me and cheer me on a lot. They have their fingers crossed that I'll do as well as possible at the Olympics."