This photo is featured in the Buyer’s Guide 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Words: Brian Pinelli
Photos: Vitek Ludvik

Vavinec Hradilek

Photo by Vitek Ludvik

If you caught Vavinec Hradilek's silver-medal performance at this summer's Olympic Games, you witnessed one of the world's most dynamic slalom paddlers lay down a near-perfect run. But you probably missed the 25-year-old Czech's clever shout-outs to his steep-creeking buddies. In a K-1 qualification run, Hradilek demonstrated an unnecessary but stylish crossbow offset stroke, as well as the "Brown Claw"—a hand gesture popularized by the Demshitz crew of extreme kayakers. Loosely translated, it celebrates running "the shit."

"I just wanted to show that being at the Olympics is not just about winning, but also having fun," Hradilek says. "That's the most important thing in the sport."

That outlook, and Hradilek's outsized talent, has helped to build a new bridge between paddling's river-running roots and its most competitive stage. Though Hradilek's phone was blowing up with messages of support from his friends and creek-racing rivals in the Association of Whitewater Professionals' budding Whitewater World Series, he is a relative newcomer to the world of extreme river-running. Diminutive yet powerful, easy-going yet determined, he cut his teeth by running gates in the relatively sedate whitewater of the Vltava River, just outside Prague's city center. He started at age 9, and made his Olympic debut at 21, in Beijing. He's been a frequent visitor to the World Cup podium, and has claimed three world championship medals, including gold in 2009. He even picked up a new discipline, advancing to the Olympic semifinals in two-man canoe with partner Stanislav Ježek.

But it was his slalom-racing friends like Mike Dawson and Isaac Levinson—paddlers who have found huge success in the grassroots creek-racing scene—that inspired Hradilek to explore outside the gates. Now he's set to make a big U.S. racing debut this fall, with an open invite to December's Whitewater Grand Prix in Chile.

"I think a lot of the creek guys have been a little bit skeptical about us slalom paddlers because it's an Olympic sport, there's a lot of professionalism and many people take it very seriously," Hradilek says. "But a lot is changing now. We've been going out with creek paddlers more, and they've actually found out that we can party and do some normal stuff."

Normal stuff doesn't include Hradilek's unorthodox training trip last winter to New Zealand, where he and Dawson set up the "most challenging slalom course ever." Dawson had qualified to represent New Zealand, and the duo claimed that the hair-raising, waterfall-packed course on the Kaituna River at peak levels was perfect Olympic preparation.