Long before the boathouses were built on the Oklahoma River, America's best paddler was from Oklahoma City.
Marcia Jones Smoke, 71, was an 11-time United States champion in kayaking. She is the only American woman to win an Olympic medal in kayaking in an individual race.
Jones Smoke, who now lives in Michigan, is a 1959 graduate of Casady High School. In 1964, the 23-year-old Marcia Jones (she married in 1965) won the bronze medal in the K1 500 meters at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Two other women from the United States won a silver medal in a doubles race in Tokyo that year, but no American woman since has won an Olympic medal in kayaking.
“The consensus among Olympic people was, we weren't going to do any good over in Tokyo,” Jones Smoke said. “We fooled them.”
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Marcia Jones dreamed of making the Olympics as a swimmer as did her older sister, Sperry.
Their father, Ingram Jones, was an electrical engineer working in Caracas, Venezuela, when his daughters started swimming competitively.
On summer trips to Venezuela to see their dad, they joined a local country club for something to do. The club had a swim team that the girls joined.
They were good swimmers, so their mother, Mary Francis, formed a swim team in Oklahoma City when they returned. The Jones girls competed in AAU swim meets across Oklahoma and Texas
“I became a good swimmer, but not good enough to make the Olympic team,” Jones Smoke said.
Both Marcia and Sperry traveled to Detroit to compete in the Olympic swimming trials, but failed to make the team.
As a gift, their mother decided to take them to Rome for the Olympics anyway.
“We watched the swimming, but we had tickets also to the sport of canoeing, not knowing what it was,” Jones Smoke said. “We went out to the lake and we saw the American women do very poorly, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, maybe that is my sport.'”
Jones Smoke was a student at the University of Michigan at the time. Her mother had attended law school there, and the Ann Arbor Swim Club was one of the strongest in the country.
Her mother remembered a Sports Illustrated article about a man living in Niles, Mich., who imported the Danish boats, the ones used in kayak racing.
“My mother called him in the fall of 1960 and told him, ‘I have two daughters that want to go to the next Olympics,” Jones Smoke said. “He got us started.”
The Jones sisters would train on Lake Hiwassee near Oklahoma City when they were home from college during the summer. Their mother had bought a lot on the lake and built a shack to store their kayaks.
Jones Smoke said her sister, Sperry, was faster than her in all sports but paddling. Jones Smoke won every individual kayaking race at the '64 Olympic Trials in New York City and earned a trip to Tokyo for the Olympic Games.
The kayaking events were held at Lake Sagami, 30 miles from Tokyo. No one expected anything from the Americans. The sport was — and still is — dominated by Europeans.
Jones Smoke and the other American kayakers showed up at Lake Sagami three weeks early for the Olympic Games.
“Our coach didn't want to rent a motor boat for $5 an hour to come work with us,” she said. “We were on our own.”
The Italian coach, a native of Hungary, approached the American girls and offered to help, Jones Smoke said.
“He took us under his wing and worked with us for three weeks,” she said. “He got us really good.”
On Oct. 22, 1964, she captured the bronze medal in the K1 500 meters. She displays her Olympic medal today on the fireplace mantel in her home in Buchanan, Mich., where she has lived for 44 years.
She would make the USA Olympic kayaking team twice more, in both 1968 and 1972.
She finished fourth in the 1968 Olympic Games. Partnering with her sister, they placed seventh in a doubles race. In the 1972 Olympic Games, she finished ninth.
Jones Smoke was the United States kayaking champion 11 consecutive years, from 1963 to 1973. One year, she had to share the national title with her sister.
“My sister tied me once, and she never let me forget it,” she said.
The American Canoe Association didn't have two gold medals, so they gave the Jones sisters both the gold and the silver. Their mother had a jeweler cut the medals and join together a half from each.
“So I have a medal that is silver and gold,” she said.
Today, Jones Smoke lives on the St. Joseph River, where she kayaks five times a week.
Twice a year, she returns to Oklahoma City to check on a real estate investment company that she inherited from her mother and to visit an aunt in Del City.
She has visited the Boathouse District a few times, but it's still hard for her to fathom the state-of-the-art boathouses on the Oklahoma River and that Oklahoma City is now home to an Olympic training site.
“Wish they had it when I was paddling,” she said.