By Conor Mihell
Whitewater slalom followers knew it was only a matter of time before Michal Smolen became the top K1 paddler in the United States. What came as a surprise to many, however, was how quickly the 17-year-old Smolen has made the ascent. At the U.S. National team trials in Charlotte, N.C. April 15-17, Smolen defeated past Olympians and World Cup medalists to take first place in the competition to establish this year's national team.
"It's not very often that you get juniors of his level," says Silvan Poberaj, the national slalom team head coach. "He's really incredible. He started showing exceptional results last fall and they continued this spring."
At the 2011 team trials on his home U.S. National Whitewater Center course in Charlotte, Smolen beat his training partner and four-time U.S. national champion Brett Heyl (who also placed second overall in the 2008 World Cup), two-time national champion Scott Mann and two-time Olympian and defending team trials winner Scott Parsons. For Joe Jacobi, the executive director of USA Canoe/Kayak, the national body for competitive paddling, Smolen's victory was "very unique."
"Traditionally in whitewater slalom there's a period of development," says Jacobi, who won a gold medal in C2 slalom at the 2002 Olympics. "But every once in a while you get a kid in his teens who's ready to race. Michal is right there."
But there's a catch: Because he doesn't have American citizenship, Smolen cannot compete in elite World Cup this year and is only eligible to represent the U.S. on the junior circuit, which has less stringent citizenship requirements. With the London Olympic Games barely a year away, one of the world's brightest young stars remains a question mark. Smolen, who immigrated to North Carolina from his native Poland eight years ago, has only had a permanent resident's green card for three years. Citizenship requirements insist he have the card for five years before he can compete for the national team.
Jacobi says "it's up to the athlete" to deal with citizenship issues. Currently, Smolen has applied for expedited citizenship in hopes that it will be granted in time for the London Games. Competing for Poland is still an option, but Smolen's training and development has taken place entirely in the U.S. His father, Rafal, a former competitor on the Polish national team, moved to North Carolina to coach the elite Nantahala Racing Club and has been his son's coach since the beginning. Rafal Smolen was also recently hired as USACK's national development and coaching manager for whitewater slalom.
This summer Smolen will look to improve his fourth place finish at last year's world junior championships. He'll miss out on the senior world championships in Bratislava, Slovakia, a competition that will serve as an initial qualifier for the U.S. Olympic team. But since there will be at least two more opportunities to make the team in early 2012, Poberaj says he won't be missing out--so long as he can stay in top racing form.
Meanwhile, Jacobi expects the 2012 Olympic team to be competitive regardless of who makes the cut. In the Olympics, only one athlete per nation is allowed to compete, meaning that the U.S. team will consist of a competitor and an alternate. "First and foremost, we have a really good team of men's kayaks," he says. "Just like any team you want to bring the best talent to the front. We've got a lot of depth to choose from."