US slalom racers seeking to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games will have one last chance to make their case this weekend May 7 – 8, at the grand opening of the $45 million Riversport Rapids whitewater center in Oklahoma City. In addition to concluding US team selection, the grand opening weekend will host a stop in Team USA's Road to Rio Tour. The course will also be kicking on the open sign for public paddlers wanting to test their skills on the latest man-made whitewater course.
Last month at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, Michal Smolen earned his place in Rio, convincingly taking the men's K-1 category, and booking his first trip to the Summer Games. In the C-1, Olympic veteran Casey Eichfeld accomplished the same. Heading into the Oklahoma competition, the women's K-1, and men's C-2 remain up for grabs in what has been a complex qualification process. This weekend will be the final opportunity for the leaders in each field to pull away from the pack and secure their place on Team USA.
Here is a rundown of what is at stake on the Oklahoma City whitewater course:
Ashley Nee walked away with a narrow win in Charlotte, Dana Mann hot on her heels. This gives Nee a 3-2 point lead over Mann heading for the starting line in Oklahoma City. One more win and the spot easily goes to Nee.
Nee also possesses a tie breaker, thanks to her being the athlete to secure the US an Olympic position in women's K-1 at last summer's Pan-American Games. With this additional advantage, should Mann take first, and Nee second, they would be tied at five points a piece and the Olympic place would still go to Nee. The only scenario for Mann to capture the Olympic berth is if she is able to win and Nee falls to third or lower. It will be difficult to rattle a focused Ashley Nee, but you can bet on Mann charging hard for the top of the podium, playing her part in attempting an upset.
The duo of Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan took the C-2 victory in Charlotte. They were also the winning boat at the Pan-American Games last summer, to gain the US an Olympic berth in C-2. This gives the pair the same advantage as Nee going into this weekend's team trial finale. Only one other pair could qualify for C-2: Michal Smolen and Zachary Lokken, who placed second at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. Smolen and Lokken would need to post the top times on the course, and have McEwan and Eichfeld fall to a third place finish in order to take over the top spot.
Whichever pair wins the team selection, it remains uncertain if they will have the opportunity to participate in the C-2 at the 2016 Olympic Games. That decision will be up to the ICF, and its ruling on how the US may distribute its acquired athlete quota. The US won both the men's C-2 and women's K-1 at the Pan-American Games last summer, which equals three athlete berths. Per ICF qualification rules, only two may be won at the continental qualifier, so the US would like to split those between two different boat classes. One for women's K-1, and one for men's C-2 – finding a partner from another event the US qualified in at the world championship (men's K-1 and C-1) to complete the team. Traditionally if athlete quota were won in C-2, two quota were used on the category for that nation. By late May, the ICF will announce its decision and the Olympic fate of the US C-2 team.
Don't count these circumstances slowing down the C-2's as they navigate the gates at Riversport Rapids with over 1,000 cfs pumping through the artificial course. Both teams will be focused, and determined to do what is within their power for their names to make the Olympic roster.
In addition to Olympic qualification, junior freestyle champ, Sage Donnelly, is looking to win the top spot in the women's C-1 (non-Olympic event), and cement her place on Team USA for this summer's ICF world cup.
–Stay tuned to C&K for on-going updates and coverage leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics.
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