BY JOE POTOCZAK
In just five short months, the United States will host the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, bringing the world’s best competitive paddlers together, Sept. 17-21, to race at the Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI) facility in western Maryland. It will be the first time the U.S. has hosted a worlds since 1989, when it was held on the Savage River, only 20 miles from the site of this year’s competition. The country’s top canoe and kayak racers all want the same thing: the opportunity to win gold on their home soil.
First, however, they have to make the team.
The U.S. Slalom Team Trials helped sort things out this weekend (March 28-30) at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC) in Charlotte, N.C. The stakes were clear, with winners solidifying their claims to represent the United States on the world stage. The man-made course, opened in 2006, has hosted multiple team trials events, each held in the whitewater center’s competition channel. Racers don’t expect the flatwater training gates of a local paddling club. Rather, the rapids in the USNWC competition channel are large and continuous, with a gradient averaging over 100 feet per mile with 500 cfs pumping through the 1000-foot long sluice, which, at its narrowest point, is less than about 18 feet wide. The surging boils, powerful eddylines, steep hydraulics and exploding cross-curlers never stop testing the racers’ pinpoint accuracy in navigating a challenging course for a shot at the national team.
“The Trials definitely feel a bit more intense than almost any other event I have ever been to,” said Jordan Poffenberger, a C-1 Green Race Champion and USA Freestyle Team Member, comparing the atmosphere to major races in other paddling disciplines. “You can feel the pressure on many of the top athletes vying for the couple of US Team slots.”
On each of the trials’ three days, the course was repositioned into a different, complex puzzle. Racers had two runs down each course, with their four fastest times (one from each day plus the next best) tallied to determine the cut. Three team slots were up for grabs in each of the respective boat classes (Women’s C-1, Men’s C-1, C-2, Women’s K-1, and Men’s K-1). With over 60 athletes in attendance--including some Canadians--the competition was fierce. But just making the team is not enough. We’re talking about slalom racers here. These athletes all want to be the number one boat on the team, showing to all that they have what it takes to be world champion.
The Women’s K-1 it was a showdown between former Slovak team paddler, now U.S. paddler, Dana Mann and Bethesda, Md.’s Ashley Nee. Both reside in the Washington, D.C., area, only a few hours from the worlds venue. Nee and Mann consistently put down some of the best runs in the Women’s class, but in the end, Mann clinched number one boat with Nee right behind her and Anna Ifarraguerri taking the third position to represent the United States.
Charlotte course local Colleen Hickey was the top American in Women’s C-1 through all three days of racing. Micki Reeves and Tracy Hines took the two other spots.
Devin McEwan and Casey Eichfeld paddled with authority in the C-2 class, besting 2012 Olympic duo of Eric Hurd and Jeff Larimer. The combo of Scott McClesky and Benn Fraker took the third slot.
Fabien Lefevre dominated the Men’s C-1 division. A longtime member of the French National Team, Lefevre recently moved to the U.S. and now paddles for the stars and stripes. Olympian Casey Eichfeld and Zach "Bugs" Lokken chased Lefevre all weekend, earning the second and third boat spots respectively.
Ever the veteran slalom racer, Lefevre paddled in multiple classes at the team trials. Along with C-1, he raced in the Men’s K-1, which is his forte and a race category where he holds two Olympic medals. Lefevre would go on to win the highly contested Men’s K-1 division as well, but not without a fight. The top men put on a show of strength, speed, and skill in and out of the gates. Rising talent Michal Smolen, 20, gave Lefevre a run for his money by putting on an impressive display on Saturday to take that round over the Frenchman, though Smolen was unable to capitalize and clinch the top-boat position after several small errors on Sunday that cost him precious seconds.
“It’s very beneficial to have Fabien on the team--it pushes you,” Smolen said of paddling with and against Lefevre. “It pushed me to perform at the level I was able to this weekend.”
Ricky Powell finished right behind Smolen, showing off some of the race’s most stylish maneuvers as he whipped through his pivot-turns through difficult upstream gates, landing the final spot on the Men’s K-1 roster.
As the events closed Sunday, the American roster was cast, stocked with talented racers ready to battle for gold when they meet the world’s best in McHenry, Maryland in a few months.
2014 US Canoe Slalom Team
3.Zach "Bugs" Lokken