By Brian Pinelli
For five days of competition in September, the world's premier kayakers and canoeists descend upon Deep Creek, Maryland, as the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships return to the United States for the first time in 25 years.
The Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI) in McHenry, Maryland is the venue for the marquee competition, September 17-21. Paddlers from more than 35 nations will adroitly navigate the world's only mountaintop re-circulating artificial whitewater course.
Numerous stars of the sport said they are greatly anticipating the pinnacle event in U.S. waters.
"I know about the history of the sport when twenty years ago the United States was a pretty strong country, especially in C1, so it will be good for their movement," said Italian Daniele Molmenti, the K1 Olympic gold medalist from London 2012.
"I'm pretty excited and will go there in July for two weeks for training and to see the course," said the popular Italian kayaker. "From watching videos of the course, it looks like I will need to get back in the gym." The ASCI course is designed to feel more like a natural river, whereas many of Europe’s artificial whitewater courses tend to have faster, shallower water with crisp eddies.
Hannes Aichner of Germany expressed similar sentiments.
"Usually all of the World Cups and everything else is in Europe, so for the athletes it's a good experience to paddle somewhere else besides the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or in Germany," said Aichner, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in K1.
Olympic C2 gold medalist and reigning world champion David Florence would have participated at the last world championships scheduled for the U.S. in 2001, had the event not been abruptly canceled due to 9/11.
"Having a race in your home country makes you feel like you are more closely involved in the sport," Florence said regarding the benefits to the U.S. paddlers, something he experienced firsthand at the 2012 London Games. "I think it could only be good for USACK and the American athletes."
Defending K1 World Champion and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Vavřinec Hradilek has been hampered by a back injury this season, and is cautiously optimistic about competing at Deep Creek.
"If I can get in the boat at least five weeks before the departure for the world championships than I will do them, but for the moment this is not the priority," said the 27-year-old Czech kayaker. "The priority remains to be 100 percent healthy.”
On the ladies side, 20-year-old Australian Jessica Fox is one of the sport's burgeoning superstars and should be fun to watch in Maryland.
"I was in Wausau, Wisconsin in 2012 for the Junior Worlds so this will be my second time to the U.S.," said Fox, the defending C1 world champion and K1 medal contender. "I've never been to Deep Creek and not too many people have other than the Americans.
"It's not very similar to any of the rivers we train on in Europe or Australia, so it will be really cool to race there."
Team USA will be seeking to break a World Championship medal drought which dates back to 2002, when Rebecca Giddens paddled to K1 gold in Bourg St. Maurice, France. The last U.S. man to capture a medal at the showcase event was Scott Shipley, who raced to K1 silver in Spain in 1999.
Twenty-year-old Michal Smolen – who won this season's Under-23 World Championships in Penrith, Australia and also claimed his first-ever World Cup medal in Prague on June 21 – appears to be the strongest medal contender from the U.S.
"Obviously, the big one is world championships in Deep Creek," said the Polish-born Smolen, who obtained his US. Citizenship in February 2013. "All of the focus during the season is towards that with steps along the way."
Joining Smolen on the U.S. squad will be 13-time world championship medalist (six-time gold medalist) Fabien Lefevre, 32, who is in his second full season competing for USA Canoe/Kayak, while veteran Dana Mann could make waves in women's K1.
In 1989, at the last American hosted ICF World Championships on Maryland’s Savage River, U.S. athletes led by canoe stars Jon Lugbill and Davey Hearn, won six of 24 medals, including two gold.
Perhaps the 2014 Championships will be a catalyst to jumpstart a U.S. program which has had difficulty maintaining stride with its European counterparts since the glory days of the 80's and early 90's.
For those canoe and kayak enthusiasts who can't wait to see the best paddlers from around the globe competing in Deep Creek, international training takes place at the Adventure Sports Center between July 7-27.
For more information about the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships visit www.deepcreek2014.com
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Here’s a video of U.S. Olympians competing on the ASCI slalom course.