PRAGUE, Czech Republic — If not for an uncharacteristic mistake – a slight touch on Gate 18 of 25 – veteran paddler Fabien Lefevre’s run would have earned a K-1 silver medal for the United States at the ICF World Championships on Saturday. Lefevre incurred a two-second violation and finished fourth, 1.34 seconds behind Czech silver medalist Jiri Prskavec. Victory went to Prskavec’s countryman and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Vavrinec Hradilek, who completed the highly technical 400-meter course on Prague’s Vltava River in 94.52 seconds.
Lefevre, a 13-time world championship medalist for France now competing for the United States, just missed becoming the first kayaker representing the U.S. to medal at the world championships since 2004 Olympic silver medalist Rebecca Giddens won gold in the 2002 worlds and bronze in 2003. Scott Shipley won the last world medal in men’s K-1, a silver in 1999 at La Seu D’urquell, Spain.
“This penalty on the bottom section killed my silver-medal winning time,” a dejected Lefevre said after his run. “There’s a little wave right before the pole and when I bounced my bow on it, it pushed my bow right and I just pushed the pole a little.”
“It’s kind of hard to finish after that when you know it is so tight between the paddlers, but I was quite solid on the bottom too,” he added.
Lefevre, 31, and a two-time K-1 Olympic medalist, said he made the right decision to pursue U.S. citizenship and continue his career representing the States. He is in the process of moving from his home in southwestern France to the Washington D.C. area.
“I’m pretty happy with this first season with the U.S.,” Lefevre said. “It’s good to launch a new program with this young team and there’s a lot to do with the kids in this country. It’s the beginning of a new story for me.”
With the frenzied Czech crowd urging on his every stroke, the small but powerful Hradilek, 26, surpassed teammate Prskavec by 1.38 seconds. Despite a two-second penalty, the local favorite’s blistering run held up for his first world championship title.
“The feeling is absolutely incredible — it was something I dreamed about when we got the world championships in Prague,” Hradilek said. “I grew up on this course and the crowd was spectacular.”
Expectations were high for Michal Smolen entering Friday’s semifinal, especially considering that the young and talented paddler clocked the third fastest time in Thursday’s heats. Smolen, 20, began auspiciously, but made costly mistakes lower down the course. Two 50-second infractions for missed gates cost him a trip to the finals in his senior slalom worlds championships debut.
“I feel like my chances were really good especially with the run that I was having,” Smolen said. “Maybe I was pushing it too much and I guess I just got too excited. I think if I could have kept my head straight – it was all mental that I wasn’t able to finish that run smoothly. It’s something to learn from for next season.”
Smolen’s U.S. teammate Richard Powell also paddled well in the K-1 heats, but finished 26th in the semifinal and failed to advance.
In other events on Saturday, two-time Olympic medalist David Florence of Great Britain won C-1 to garner his first world championship medal in canoe singles. His winning time of 100.53 was .83 seconds faster than Alexander Slafkovsky of Slovakia.
“It’s a very hard course here, I had a plan and obviously it’s a big occasion,” Florence said. “I guess I just stayed in the zone and I put in an absolutely great run. It’s fantastic to get this at what is the major race in canoe slalom.”
Australia’s darling Jessica Fox put the icing on top of a superb world cup winning season with a gold medal in women’s C-1. The 2012 Olympic silver medalist obliterated the competition, defeating her nearest challenger by a mind-boggling 12.99 seconds and that despite six penalty seconds.
“It’s all about feeling good on the water and getting the flow on the boat,” Fox said when asked if she was in another dimension. “It’s a very hard course and there were some decisions, like deciding whether to spin in places, but I took the safe options. I think I got all the moves in a methodical way and I pieced together a good run.”
The ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships culminated on Sunday with the women’s K-1 and men’s C-2 finals, in addition to two team finals. Dana Mann, in her first season competing for the U.S., finished fifth in women’s K-1. Mann, a 2011 world champion for Slovakia who relocated to Washington, D.C., was seeking the country’s first women’s world championship medal since Rebecca Giddens took bronze in 2003. Mann finished her final run in 120.62, including three gate touch penalties amounting to 6 added seconds of penalty time. Her time was +4.88 seconds behind 2012 Olympic gold medalist Emilie Fer, who won the race, completing the course 2.20 seconds faster than French teammate (and 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards Female Paddler of the Year winner) Nouria Newman.
In men’s C-2, Florence added a second world championship gold as he and Richard Hounslow paddled to victory.
Next season, the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships come to Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. It will mark the first time in 25 years that they are contested in the United States.
“Dana and Fabien represented themselves, the sport and the United States like champions this week in Prague,” USA Canoe/Kayak CEO Joe Jacobi said in a press release. “Their top five placings in the Finals set a great standard as we look forward to welcoming our fellow teams to the World Championships in Maryland next year.”