"My parents had a boat for me, a C-1, before I was born," says US canoeist Casey Eichfeld. "My mom was actually a scribe at the Savage River for the ’89 worlds when she was six months pregnant with me, which meant ‘This is probably what you’re going to do Casey.’" Eichfeld started using that boat around the age of two. Living in Richmond at that time, Eichfeld’s father would bring him down to the James River, so he could take the canoe for a spin, and even have a go at a few gates.
"My dad would stick these PVC poles in the sand and let me try to maneuver my way around them,” Eichfeld says. “I remember getting stuck once and not wanting him to help me. I was hellbent on being able to get off the gates myself."
The passion for his canoe, and determination to succeed, has led Eichfeld, now 26, to the 2008, 2012, and presently the 2016 Olympic Games. Eichfeld believes he would not be the athlete he is today without his die-hard paddling parents and everyone else who has been a part of the journey. With this aspect in mind, he has also paid it forward in the sport by coaching aspiring young racers at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
Although the three-time Olympian looks at his participation in the Summer Games as a great accomplishment, he is hungry for much more. Last September, Eichfeld placed fourth in the 2015 world championships at the Lee Valley Olympic course, finishing less than a second from the podium, proving he can contend with the best in the world and has what it takes to win an Olympic medal.
C&K recently had an opportunity to speak with Eichfeld to learn more about his aspirations to be one of the greats, his passion for coaching youth paddlers, and why he believes slalom is for everyone:
CanoeKayak.com: Do you remember when you fell in love with whitewater canoeing?
Casey Eichfeld: I don’t think I have any memories of not being in love with it. I grew up on the river. My parents always told me that when we would go on river trips, I would fall asleep for the flat water, then I’d wake up excited for the whitewater, then I’d go back to sleep for the next round of flat water.
C&K: For someone who has spent their whole life in the sport, it must feel pretty incredible to be in your twenties and be a three-time Olympian?
Eichfeld: It definitely is. It’s pretty amazing. My ultimate goal is not just the Olympics though. It’s the podium, ideally the top of the podium. I still have goals and dreams to chase, but being a three-time Olympian is a very good start. I’ve had some pretty amazing people to watch and to motivate me. But I always wanted to chase Michal Martikan from Slovakia who won his first gold medal at the age of 16 at the ’96 games, and has been a medalist in every games since then. This past Olympics was his first bronze, and he wasn’t very happy about it. I know I’d have been pretty stoked about a bronze in the last games, but it’s perspective. Those dreams and goals still drive me every time I get on the water. I’ve always wanted to be one of the greats. In some ways maybe I still can be.
C&K: At the 2015 worlds you placed fourth, which was an impressive finish. Were you excited with your result there?
Eichfeld: I was really happy about that. It was sort of a mixed bag though because it was hard for me to be so close to the podium on such an elite field. The world championships for us are more challenging than the Olympics themselves solely because we aren’t limited by the number of athletes we can send. At the Olympics, each country can send one athlete per discipline maximum. At the world championships, those great countries are going to send three athletes in each of the disciplines. So it was a huge achievement to be able to beat out three French, three Germans, and three Czechs. All these core European countries are so strong in the sport. It was really incredible and highly motivational. But at the same time, there was only blink of time between me and the podium. For two-thirds of the course, I was winning. I was leading by more than two seconds which in our sport these days is a very large margin. I had a line deviation that wasn’t ideal, but even with that I was still winning. I proceeded to hit the third-to-last gate which gave me a two-second penalty. That was enough to knock me back. So by the time I crossed the finish I was .2 seconds back from third place. That was a hard thing for me to swallow, but it was good to see I could be competitive with the best in the world.
For me, my biggest need is to find my focus. A lot of us are very well trained athletically. Technically we know what to do. But races are won and lost by who has the clearer focus. Who can see those small differences in lines that are going to gain you tenths of seconds? Whitewater is just constantly changing. So when we have to dance our way down it, maneuvering between these poles, it requires such mental acuity it’s kind of unbelievable.
C&K: Slalom has certainly faced its challenges over the past years in the US as far as participation and the divide between it and recreational paddlers. Why do you believe it is an important aspect of the overall sport?
Eichfeld: I wish every paddler would dabble in slalom a little, not even so much from the desire for slalom to survive, but honestly as far as I’m concerned slalom is just the ultimate form of paddling. You have to learn the water so well. You have to understand the way it works to such a fine degree that we are very versatile, you can put us in anything.
Tad Dennis is a great example of that. He is already a strong slalom canoer. He does very well in freestyle and now he is doing very well in creeking. He just took second at the North Fork Championships, which is unbelievably massive whitewater. He beat a class that was basically just kayaks. He could visualize exactly the line in all that water: where he needed to go and what was fastest. It’s cool to have that knowledge you build because you paddle slalom. It’s not something you have to study for. It’s something fun, and you basically develop an understanding of physics just by doing an activity.
This has been something entering my mind more and more as I coach the young ones. I have to think about exactly what I’m doing on the water. It’s weird and fun. A lot of these skills developed without me realizing what I was doing; they became instinct. When I have to break it down in my head, it makes me a better paddler. I can make better-informed decisions. Sometimes instinct isn’t right, and you have to overcome that with conscious knowledge.
C&K: So you spend time coaching youth paddlers?
Eichfeld: Ultimately, as much as I want a gold medal, I also want the sport to survive. If I can do anything to help that along (like helping kids get into the sport who may hopefully one day help other kids get into the sport), then that’s the end goal. One day there will be other athletes, and maybe they will have the opportunity to shine because we took the time and effort now to make sure there is still a sport.
C&K: What is the most important lesson you want to instill with the kids you are coaching?
Eichfeld: I want them to be good people. I want them to learn the water too and become great paddlers of course. But I want them to become greater people. You can be an amazing athlete, but if you’re a total jerk then you don’t have anyone to share that with. Slalom doesn’t really affect the world very much, but if they can come out of slalom and be good people that are going to be productive in society, then that’s what is really important.
C&K: What’s your favorite part of being an Olympian?
Eichfeld: I love the opening ceremonies. It’s really incredible to me that when you walk in it doesn’t really matter what is going on in the world. Everybody in the stadium is excited to see you. They look past your nationality. They just see us as people who have worked hard for something, and they respect and admire that. It’s really cool people can come together for that night. It’s what the Olympics are all about. We join together to do sport and to hopefully bring home the gold, or any other color medal, for our country. But in the end, it’s just about sport and that’s it. It’s not political. It’s not religious. It’s not anything but good old fun… at a very high level.
I also love the village. You get to interact with all these other athletes. The opening ceremonies are not a great time to do that. Everybody’s running around trying to figure out where they are supposed to be. In the village, you have this awesome opportunity to interact with other people. The dining hall is perfect. It’s just hundreds of tables and chairs. It’s not like they are divided by country. There are no borders. You just sit down next to somebody and wait until they say, ‘Hey.’
Stay tuned to C&K for ongoing coverage of the Road to Rio