Michal Smolen competing at 2016 team trials in Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning
Michal Smolen competing at 2016 team trials in Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning

Road to Rio: Michal Smolen

This speedy U.S. kayaker proves that even the best have barriers to break along the way

Michal Smolen racing at the 2016 team trials in Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning

On the verge of racing in his first Olympics, kayaker Michal Smolen may just be the top American medal contender in canoe and kayak events at the 2016 Summer Games. At 22-years-old Smolen has already won the 2014 U-23 world championship and captured bronze at the 2015 senior worlds in London, some of the strongest performances by an American in recent memory. Even with his remarkable skill and his ability to continually tally up impressive finishes, Smolen has had to face plenty of challenges in order to reach the Olympic stage.

Emigrating from Poland as a child, Smolen moved to western North Carolina where his father Rafal was coaching slalom on the Nantahala — the river where a young Michal would first dip a paddle. A fear of the moving water created an initial distaste for kayaking which could have easily kept him from ever reaching his current competitive position or even from paddling at all.

Eventually overcoming this fear, Smolen spent his teenage years progressing in the sport, working his way up to the national level where it became clear he would be a challenger to the senior members of the national team. At the 2012 US team trials in Charlotte, Smolen finished second overall, which should have put him in contention for the K-1 position in the London Games, however due to his citizenship status at the time, Smolen was ineligible to qualify.

Smolen — who gained full US citizenship in March 2013 — was initially frustrated with the scenario, but now feels it was for the best. The delay allowed him time to mature as a competitor and better prepared him for the current task at hand, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

C&K recently had a chance to hear from Smolen about the path to his first Olympic campaign:

Michal Smolen claims his first trip to the Olympics. Photo Serge Skiba

Michal Smolen claims his first trip to the Olympics. Photo Serge Skiba

Canoekayak.com: You initially had some fears of the water and weren’t very interested in kayaking, correct? How did you finally come around to the sport and progress so far?

Michal Smolen: Yes, I was very afraid of the water when I first started kayaking. When I tried it for the first time, I was eight-years-old and my father took me out on the Nantahala River right where the rafting take-out is. He told me to paddle out and come back. The problem was that I was tiny and the boat was very heavy. I could barely make it out in the current or even get my paddle in the water. So my father would push me out and told me to paddle back. I didn't really like that. After that experience, I didn't really want to do it again. Just a few years later I joined the local swim team and got much more comfortable being in the water. I loved the competitive aspect of swimming and I was getting really serious about it, but at some point, I started to miss kayaking so I gave it another go. That time it stuck and I've been doing it ever since.

C&K: Would you say this was the toughest obstacle you have encountered or have there been others?

Smolen: The fear was a huge setback, of course. Another thing that really held me back was when I was trying to obtain my citizenship in time to compete in the 2012 Games in London. At that point, I was getting competitive with the top kayakers in the country and I had a really good shot of making the team that year. I was told before the Olympic trials that if there was no progress on my citizenship, my results would not count for the qualification. It was tough, and I had to wait a few months after the London Games until I could be naturalized. I was not very happy as I really wanted to compete at my first Olympics. Over time, however, I've come to realize that I was probably too young and inexperienced to handle the pressure of such a big competition. In the end, having to face a setback like this only made me stronger. I was much more motivated in my training the following year and I was excited to have a new goal in sight: the Olympic Games in Rio.

C&K: What is it you most enjoy about racing? What does slalom have that nothing else does?

Smolen: The variety. Slalom is never boring, except for maybe a few weeks a year training on the flatwater. Every course is different. This is exactly why I chose kayaking over swimming. I love the fact that the training is always exciting and leaves you wanting to come back the next day. Plus, we get to travel all around the world to train and compete. I've been putting off my education for this sport, and I never regret that decision. Getting to know people and learning about other cultures through actual experiences is something special. I'm grateful to have such a cool life experience.

C&K: Who has been most influential in your career?

Smolen: Probably my parents. They were both professional athletes for a while. My mother played team handball and was on the Polish national team. My father, of course, was a kayaker also on the Polish team. They both have a lot of experience competing at an elite level. To have that sort of guidance throughout my career has been tremendous. Collectively I've learned from them a great deal and I definitely would not have made it this far without their wisdom and support. A common question that I get frequently is: "What’s it like to have your father as a coach?" It's a tough relationship for sure, but we have made it work over the years. It takes a lot of patience for the both of us to work together. Sometimes we have wildly different opinions and we're not always on the same page. It's taken me some time to realize it but that's exactly what makes us a great team. We're both very critical and we want the job done perfectly. Having some arguments along the way is a small price to pay for the day all our hard work pays off.

C&K: When do you feel you reached a turning point in racing, where you realized you could compete with the top paddlers in the world?

Smolen: I think the first success for me was in 2014 when I won the U-23 world championship in Australia. In the year before I knew that I was physically capable of having an international podium but my mental game was seriously lacking. In the winter of 2013-14 I worked with sports psychologists to figure out how to deal with competing on the international circuit, dealing with the stress, and eliminating moments of weakness when a single penalty caused me to fall apart. The following year was incredible. I made tremendous improvements on the water without making any changes in my physical training. My confidence was there and my head was finally screwed on straight. When I claimed the U-23 title, it felt like all my hard work had finally paid off. Later that summer I had my first world cup podium in Prague. Although the world championships that year didn't go well for me I knew that I had made tremendous progress and that it wouldn't be too long before I could have another breakthrough result. Just a year later I was able to make my first world championship podium.

C&K: What is the most challenging aspect of competing on the Olympian level?

Smolen: Things only get harder when you become an Olympian. Sure, there's a lot of work you have to put in before you're ready to make your first Olympic Team. Once you get there, however, there's a lot of other aspects you have to deal with on top of your everyday training. You start having more opportunities with sponsors and media. Sometimes it's overwhelming and you're forced to fill your day with interviews or meetings when you should be resting. At that point, it really starts feeling like work. My biggest advice to an athlete who gets to this point in their career is to pick your battles. There's always a chance to appear on camera after you have your medal. Training is always a number one priority for me. Otherwise, my focus will not be there and I'm only hurting myself in the long run.

C&K: As a medal contender, and a key player in the future of US slalom, have you at any point felt the weight of others’ expectations? How do you manage this and stay focused?

Smolen: Surprisingly I've never felt this kind of pressure weighing me down. I always want things done perfectly so I'm already putting a lot of pressure on myself as it is. I have my own expectations and goals, but in the end it's not something I'll be thinking about in the starting block at the Olympics. At that point things get surprisingly simple and I have only one thing to focus on – what's in front of me. I've been working hard on techniques that help me get in that 'zone' where I'm only thinking about how I'll get down the course, and not how I'll feel when I cross the finish or how a mistake is going to affect my focus. Don't get me wrong, I'm tremendously honored people believe in me and will be cheering me on come this summer. I just want to make sure I do everything in my power to cancel out the background noise in my head.

C&K: What are you most looking forward to for the race in Rio?

Smolen: I'm so excited to get to experience my first Olympic Games. It's something I've dreamed about for years and I haven't fully wrapped my head around the fact that I'll have a chance to live that dream so soon. Hearing such a huge crowd cheering will be something spectacular and I can't wait to put on a show. I hope that I can provide my fans, friends, family, and all those watching with an unforgettable experience.

Michal Smolen exults after his winning run at the 2014 ICF U23 Slalom World Championships. Photo by Pete Coggan

Michal Smolen exults after his winning run at the 2014 ICF U23 Slalom World Championships. Photo by Pete Coggan

— Michal Smolen has been nominated for the 2016 C&K Awards

— Follow Michal throughout his first Olympic campaign

Check out C&K interviews with Smolen’s fellow Team USA paddlers: Ashley Nee, Casey Eichfeld, and Maggie Hogan

More from C&K:
The New Americans
Replay: 2015 Slalom Worlds


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