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Road to Rio: Making the Cut

The top U.S. slalom paddlers prepare to race for their place on the Olympic squad

On August 7th, The finest slalom athletes in the world will drop into the gates of the Olympic Whitewater Stadium in Brazil, battling for Olympic glory at the 2016 Summer Games.

At least three American slalom racers, and possibly as many as four, will compete in Rio. But first, they have to make the cut at U.S. Olympic Trials this weekend in Charlotte and next month in Oklahoma City.

The road to Rio is long and complex. The number of Olympic berths in whitewater slalom is smaller than ever, and nations must earn those coveted spots with strong performances at the previous year’s World Championships and other international events leading up to the Summer Games.

Only 21 nations will be represented in the Men’s and Women’s K-1 at the 2016 Games, compared to more than 50 in the Men’s event at the 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championship. There are only 16 Olympic berths in Men’s C-1 and 12 in C-2. Each nation is permitted only one entry in each discipline, meaning the maximum number of athletes from any country is capped at five.

The U.S. holds four potential athlete positions. Two of these are certain, earned at the 2015 World Championship with Michal Smolen’s bronze-medal finish in K-1 and Casey Eichfeld’s fourth-place in C-1. The U.S. also earned two additional positions at the Pan-American Games in Toronto last summer, but how these positions may be distributed is yet to be determined.

Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan won the C-2 at the Pan-American Games earning two positions, while U.S. women’s kayaker Ashley Nee also gained an Olympic berth for the U.S. with a third-place finish behind the Canadian and Brazilian paddlers. Canada had already qualified in K-1W, and Brazil receives an automatic berth as the host nation, so the spot went to the U.S.

But wait, doesn’t that makes three?

Yes, but ICF rules only allow two athlete positions to be earned at the Pan-American Games. The U.S. would like to use one of these for the women’s K-1 and the other for a single C-2 athlete, who would team with an athlete who is also competing in K-1 or C-1 to complete a C-2 team. Whether a single C-2 position can be used instead of eating up both slots, is the question currently posed, and falls into the gray area of interpretation. The ICF is set to rule on that question in late May. If the answer is yes then the U.S. may have the opportunity to race in every discipline, as long as one of the C-2 athletes earns a spot in another event. If no, then the U.S. will be forced to choose whether it sends a women’s K-1 or a C-2 team, in which case they have communicated they will send the women’s K-1.

Confusing? Sure, but for the athletes it’s simple. To keep the Olympic dream alive, they need to earn their spot on the U.S. team. Selection gets under way this Friday, April 8th, at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC. It is the first of two team trial events deciding which US athletes will get their ticket to Brazil. The second will be held in Oklahoma City May 7-8, the grand opening of the much anticipated Riversport Rapids whitewater facility. Points accumulated from each of these events (3 for 1st place, 2 for 2nd, and 1 for 3rd) along with points acquired from strong performances at the 2015 ICF worlds will be tallied to decide which athletes are selected in the disciplines of Men’s K-1, Women’s K-1, Men’s C-1, and C-2.

Here is a look at where each discipline stands going into the weekend:

Michal Smolen 2014 worlds. Photo by Regina Nicolardi

Michal Smolen 2014 worlds. Photo by Regina Nicolardi

K-1 Men:

Michal Smolen, who continues to prove his case as a top international competitor, can wrap up his ticket to Rio in Charlotte if he earns a podium finish this weekend. Smolen brings a hard to surpass five-point lead into team selection, thanks to his bronze medal performance at the 2015 worlds. Third place or better will guarantee Smolen his first trip to the Olympics.

Team USA's Casey Eichfeld who took 4th in C1M, 2015 worlds.

Team USA’s Casey Eichfeld who took 4th in C1M, 2015 worlds. Photo Andy Gutteridge

C-1 Men:
Casey Eichfeld has a commanding lead in the C-1 selection process. Eichfeld placed fourth in the 2015 worlds, just shy of a medal, but acquiring four-points toward US team selection. With a second place finish or better in Charlotte, Eichfeld will be joining Smolen on the flight to Rio.

Dana Mann, 2014 worldsl. Photo: Regina Nicolardi

Dana Mann, 2014 worldsl. Photo: Regina Nicolardi

K-1 Women:

This is where selection gets interesting. “The women’s kayak is wide open,” says Aaron Mann, USACK Director of Communications.

None of the competitors bring points into Charlotte, making a shot at the Olympics anyone’s ballgame. The top two to watch will be Ashley Nee and Dana Mann, both perennial favorites to qualify for the U.S. squad. Should two close races in Charlotte and Oklahoma City have them exchanging podium positions, and result in a point total tie, the results of the second event will also act as the decider. [Correction: According to USACK team selection criteria, as the athlete who acquired an Olympic quota for the U.S., Nee holds the advantage should a tie occur.]

Devin McEwan and Casey Eichfeld. Photo by Kyle Boynton.

Devin McEwan and Casey Eichfeld. Photo by Kyle Boynton.

C-2:

The C-2 brings a slightly more complex scenario. While the U.S. has four potential athlete slots for slalom, filling three of those spots with the men’s and women’s K-1 and the C-1 leaves only one more athlete position. This means the C-2 team must contain one of the qualifiers from another discipline. This may be an easy problem to solve, as two of the three boats registered for Charlotte contain likely Olympic qualifiers in the teams of Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan and Michal Smolen and Zachary Lokken.

While the Olympics is the main focus of this year’s team selection, racers who do not qualify for the sole Olympic spots in each class (including the women’s C-1 which is not yet an Olympic discipline) will also be competing to make the U.S. team for this summer’s ICF world cup races.

Follow live results of the Olympic team trials in Charlotte.

Stay tuned to C&k for on-going updates and coverage leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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