U.S. paddler Brett Heyl qualified in 30th place today in the men's kayak class at the World Championships in Slovakia. Photo: Jamie McEwan

(Ed’s note: This post is one in a series covering the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships. See earlier dispatches from Slovakia HERE.)

By Jamie McEwan

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — It was a disappointing morning for the U.S. paddlers, including for my sentimental favorite, the McEwan and Eichfeld team.

The drama of qualifying heats lies not in the placings within the top ten, but “on the bubble”—those paddlers who are just inside or just outside the cutoff. Like a team trials, the point in heats is not to win, but to survive the cut. The current World and Olympic Champions, the Hochschorners, for example, did not bother to take their second run, allowing their first run to place them in third.

Pre-race encouragement. Photo: Keith Boynton

U.S. paddler Ashley Nee talks with coach Silvan Poberaj after her runs. Photo: Jamie McEwan

C-2 intensity. Photo: Keith Boynton

The top 20 out of the 43 starting C-2’s qualify to go on to the semifinals, and all three U.S. boats had a shot of being in the top 20. But none of them put it together. The best result was Eric Hurd and Jeff Larimer’s, in 32nd place, which sounds distant but was only five seconds from the magical 20th. Levinson and Fraker were 35th, and McEwan and Eichfeld 36th. (Side note: It is surprisingly common for boats from the same country to place close together.)

The story was similar for U.S. women, though with a silver lining. The top 30 women go on to the semifinals, out of 70 entries, and after first runs, Caroline Queen was sitting in 25th. After she failed to improve on her second run, there seemed at least a decent chance that her first run would hold her in the top 30. But she ended up 1.6 seconds out. Interesting to note that she had a two-second penalty on both runs, without which…

But, I ran into a relieved Queen in the parking lot as she was leaving, and found that her 37th meant that the U.S. was the fifteenth country in the women’s kayak placings. There happen to be exactly fifteen Olympic slots available in this class. The U.S. has just qualified its first Olympic entry. A very nice consolation prize (though this slot will not necessarily be filled by Caroline).

Ashley Nee placed 47th for the U.S., and Michelle Kvanli 59th. I assure you, you have to paddle a pretty solid race to place 59th in this class in the World Championships.

Olympic hopes remain alive for the U.S. C-2’s, who may earn one slot as the Americas Continent representative.

The afternoon was devoted to the heats of the men’s kayak class—the “koenig’s klasse,” as the Germans call it, or “king’s class.” Entries: 110; available semifinal places: 40. The men’s kayak is probably the strongest class for the U.S., and that traditional duo, Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons, placed themselves into the semifinals with adequate room to spare, coming in 30th and 34th. It was somewhat surprising that Scott Mann did not make the cut, as Mann has had a good season this year, very competitive with Heyl and Parsons. His wife, the Slovakian Dana Mann (formerly Dana Benusova), qualified for the semifinals this morning, placing 25th. Mann had two clean runs and no large mistakes that I saw, though he did seem to lose some time in the upstream after the big drop. Men’s kayak is like that—there are simply a lot of good racers.

A fun fact that jumped out at me: Longtime racer Stepanka Hilgertova from the Czech republic, two-time Olympic gold medalist (1996 and 2000) and two-time World Champion, placed a very solid 9th in K-1W, and her son Lubos Hilgert placed an equally solid 8th in K-1M. How cool would it be to see both mother and son in the finals?

It was a very emotional day. Some met disappointment with tears, some with rueful shrugs and smiles, some with set faces. When I asked Brett Heyl how he felt about his race, he replied, “It’s always a good day when you make it through.”

One thing I’ve realized is that I’ll never make a hard-hitting reporter. After the men’s kayak race, I was twice within 10 feet of Scott Mann, the second time with every intention of asking him how he felt. But I didn’t dare. His face said it all. (Yeah, yeah, I didn’t take his picture either. So sue me.)

Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world's best slalom paddlers compete for the sport's most significant prize. Among them is Jamie's son, Devin, racing in the USA C-2 with Casey Eichfeld.