American paddlers hoping to compete in the 2004 Olympics this August in Athens, Greece, face a grueling preparation period with lots of uncertainty over the next few months.

It’s compounded by financial difficulties that have left the supporting organization, USA Canoe/Kayak, working overtime to raise much-needed cash coming into an expensive competition season.

Despite the challenges, U.S. kayakers and canoeists are in good shape to be successful in Athens, USACK Executive Director David Yarborough said. “We had third- and eighth-place finishers in the 2003 Slalom Worlds, and two fourth places in the 2003 Sprint Worlds,” he said.

In slalom, Rebecca Giddens took third place in K-1W, and Scott Parsons took eighth for K-1. In sprint, Ruth Nortje took fourth in K-1W 500m, and Rami Zur took fourth in K-1 500m.

Paddlers can compete in two disciplines: sprint, or slalom. In each discipline, the United States must compete at world-level events for the right to send boats to the Olympics. U.S. paddlers compete among themselves at team qualifiers for spots on the team, paddling those boats.

So far, the U.S. has qualified two boats in each discipline, Yarborough said. They’ll have an opportunity to earn more Olympic slots at competitions in April, in Brazil for sprint paddlers and in Athens for slalom paddlers.

Slalom hopefuls plan to travel to Athens to begin training on the Olympic course in February. They’ll return to the U.S. for team trials in South Bend, Indiana, in early April, then head back to Athens for a World Cup event that serves as a qualifier for the Olympics in late April. That means three trips to Athens this year for those who eventually make the team.

Sprint hopefuls will compete at team trials in Oakland in early April, then head to Brazil for another Olympics qualifier in late April. That’s another expensive trip, Yarborough noted, not just for paddlers but also for the cost of shipping the boats to southern Brazil.

USACK has been operating at a deficit for the past two years, and has had to take some dramatic steps to restructure, said Yarborough, who joined the organization in spring of 2003. They’ve streamlined some administrative functions and taken steps to improve the financial controls for the organization. They’ve also outlined an ambitious fundraising program for 2004. Support from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which makes up more than half of the organization’s roughly $1.6 million annual budget, has been declining as the USOC’s own funding has diminished, he said. Corporate sponsorship directly to USACK has also fallen off as the economy has soured.

On a happier note, he said, the USOC provides USACK and the athletes a broad array of support, including use of Olympic Training Centers, athlete health insurance, direct grants to athletes, and various in-kind opportunities. USOC helped the teams obtain new uniforms from Adidas.

USACK provides coaching to the national team and administrative support for the Olympic disciplines. USACK also pays for some travel and some equipment for athletes. Most athletes are engaged in fund-raising on their own behalf as well. If you’re interested in supporting the team, or in supporting individual athletes, you can find out more at the USACK Web site,