This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.
BY BRIAN PINELLI
American slalom kayaker Michal Smolen seems to be elevating his game at just the right time.
The 21-year-old has been among the best American slalom racers since he was still in high school. At just 17, the Polish-born phenom beat all comers—including two Olympic veterans—at the 2011 U.S. Team Trials. He finished second in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, but sat out the games because he was not yet eligible to compete for the United States, where he has lived since he was 9 years old.
He became a citizen in February 2013, and in April the new American won the Under-23 World Championship in men's kayak. The win established Smolen as one of the world's best young slalom racers, and a serious contender at September's ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, which will be contested in the United States for the first time in 25 years.
Despite his considerable success, Smolen has stumbled in high-pressure situations. That's where another transplanted American, the former French star Fabien Lefevre, comes in. The 32-year-old veteran could help mentor Smolen to the top of the world and Olympic podiums—if, that is, the older man doesn't claim gold for himself.
Lefevre joined the U.S. program last season, after a decade on the French team in which he accumulated 13 world championship and two Olympic medals. He won his first world title at the tender age of 20, and remains a formidable threat.
"He stays focused the entire run and isn't fazed by other factors," Smolen says of Lefevre, who is pursuing U.S. citizenship. "To learn from his experience is something special. I just have to take advantage of every opportunity to race and train with him."
That's just what Smolen was doing on a raw day in February at the Dickerson Whitewater Course outside of Washington, D.C. The artificial course is built in a concrete channel that returns cooling water from the Dickerson power station to the Potomac River. Steam rises from the warm water and from the athletes, who push one another relentlessly."
Sometimes in practice, Michal is kicking my ass and pushing me to the limits," Lefevre says. It's a relationship that benefits both paddlers.
"I think I was like Michal at age 20; I was able to go fast and I had the talent, but it took me a while to structure this talent," Lefevre says. "He's growing as an adult and I'm pretty sure he will get some good results very soon."
Last year in Prague, at his first senior world championships, Smolen was spectacular in the heats, clocking the third-fastest time in a field of more than 100 competitors. With his first medal on the grand stage within reach, the young kayaker got off to a fast start in the semis, but missed two gates farther down the course. He finished 39th.
When the world cup returned to Prague in June, Smolen claimed a bronze medal, his first on the senior circuit.
"I believe in a year or two he should regularly be in the finals and competing for medals. He needs experience and maturity to reach the podiums," says Smolen's father Rafal. The elder Smolen knows of what he speaks; he competed internationally for Poland, and is now a coach on the U.S. team.
With the retirements of Scott Mann and Brett Heyl following the London 2012 Olympics, Lefevre has added welcome leadership to a youthful group at USA Canoe/Kayak.
"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," Lefevre says. "It's the beginning of a new story for me."
Lefevre wants to end that story with a gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, the only major title that has eluded him over an illustrious career. Smolen will almost certainly fit into that narrative, as friend, training partner and rival.
Both paddlers have a golden opportunity to make a huge splash at the first world championships to come to the U.S. since the 1989 worlds were contested on Maryland's Savage River. That event was a turning point for American slalom kayakers, in which the late Rich Weiss proved that American kayakers could compete with the best in the world. (Though a controversial gate-touch penalty dropped Weiss from second to fifth, film later showed that he had run clean.) The Savage worlds ushered in an era of American slalom ascendance that included Olympic gold in the 1992 men's C-2, Dana Chladek's Olympic silver and bronze in women's kayak, and Scott Shipley's run of three world cup titles in men's kayak. That generation has moved on, and the U.S. hasn't climbed the Olympic podium since Rebecca Giddens's silver medal in Athens, 10 years ago this month.
The worlds return to Maryland Sept. 17-21 at the Adventure Sports Center International course in Deep Creek. There the new Americans, Smolen and Lefevre, will compete on their adopted home soil and, possibly, spark a second renaissance in American slalom.