That’s the storyline this month, as America’s top slalom paddlers fight and scratch for the right to represent their country in the 2008 Olympic Games.
On the bubble are the best U.S. slalom kayakers of the current generation, Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons. Both have Olympic experience and both are capable of medaling, but only one goes to Beijing. The United States gets just one Olympic entry in each of the four slalom disciplines, and the selection has come down to the wire in each of them.
Parsons is the front-runner by virtue of his seventh-place finish at the 2007 world championships, says three-time Olympic kayaker and world-cup winner Scott Shipley. “Scotty won silver in the pre-Olympic test event last year, added two world cup medals and then beat everyone in the qualifying round of the 2007 world championships,” Shipley says. “But Brett is capable of beating him on any day.”
That’s exactly what happened at the U.S. Team Trials in Charlotte in April, and because the selection criteria include the results of the 2007 worlds, team trials and the Augsburg world cup July 4-6, the final decision comes down to a tiebreaker in Germany. The formula is designed to send to Beijing consistent paddlers on a hot streak, but its real genius has proved to be in building suspense.
In addition to Parsons and Heyl, the marquee inter-squad matchups include veteran Jeff Larimer versus 18-year-old Benn Fraker in C1, Scott McCleskey and Austin Crane against upstarts Casey Eichfeld and Richard Powell in C2, and Zuzana Vanha and three others battling for the Women’s K-1 spot. (Check results July 7 at usack.org.)
The theme in all of these matchups is old-guard versus new blood, Shipley says. “To be going into the Games with newcomers as potential medalists is huge for our program. It represents the kick-off to another generation of top U.S. results.”
In flatwater sprint, the U.S. qualified two boats at the world championships last year. Doing the heavy lifting were Rami Zur and Carrie Johnson, who finished fifth in the men’s and women’s K-1 500, respectively. “Both have a legitimate shot at a medal,” says four-time Olympic flatwater medalist Greg Barton. “The men’s 500 is so competitive that tenths of a second can make the difference between medaling and taking sixth.” The U.S. squad hoped to increase its allocation of Olympic berths at the continental qualifier in Montreal, which took place after C&K went to press.
The stingy allotment of Olympic entries reflects ever-tightening qualification standards as the International Olympic Committee attempts to control the size of the games. Each country must now earn its Olympic berths on the strength of performances at the world championships and continental qualifiers.
The big story when the Olympic slalom competition takes place August 11-14 is whether any of the three returning double gold medalists will win for the third time in Beijing. Stepanka Hilgertova of the Czech Republic, the 1996 and 2000 gold medalist in women’s kayak, is still a threat at 40. (In fact her son Lubos Hilgert could even be a dark horse in London 2012; the 21-year-old already is racing on the world cup circuit.) The canoes are also a family affair, with fraternal twins Pavel and Peter Hochschorner of Slovakia in C2 and France’s Tony Estanguet in C1—whose brother Patrice won bronze in 1996—each looking for a third consecutive gold medal.
“If Estanguet wins he’ll become France’s first three-in-a-row gold medalist in any sport, which would make him a national hero and impact slalom worldwide,” says 1972 U.S. Olympic Bronze medalist Jamie McEwan. Standing in his way is Slovakia’s Michal Martikan, the 1996 gold medalist and runner-up in 2000 and 2004. “Martikan edged Estanguet at the 2007 worlds, and would love to do it again,” McEwan says. “It should be a grand race.”
If you’re looking to back a dark horse, the winner of the Parsons-Heyl showdown is as good a bet as any. But don’t count out the Chinese, either. They haven’t just built state-of-the-art slalom and flatwater venues from scratch; they’ve also assembled a formidable team. “In March, the Chinese C-2 team of Minghai Hu and Junrong Shu upset the Hochschorners at a race in Australia,” says former U.S. slalom coach Bill Endicott, who is a consultant to the Chinese team.
In addition to Zur and Johnson, North American flatwater fans can root for Canada’s Adam van Koeverden two claim gold in both single kayak events. He took gold and bronze medals in Athens four years ago, and took gold and silver at the 2007 worlds.
Also looking to make history is Hungarian kayaker Natasa Janic. She already owns two Olympic gold medals from Athens, will try to win three more in Beijing. And in sprint canoe, Germany’s Andres Dittmer will be gunning for his unprecedented fourth gold.
“There are definitely some great stories to follow in Beijing this year,” says Joe Jacobi, a 1992 C-2 gold medalist and this year’s color commentator for NBC. “Let the Games begin.”