By Jamie McEwan
For many slalom athletes, the grueling, three-day Olympic Trials held in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, April 12, through Saturday, April 14, is the most important competition of the quadrennium.
Yet the Trials will not finalize the 2012 Olympic Team.
Selection is based on a point system, and the final chance to earn points will not come until June 10, at the first World Cup Race in Cardiff, Wales. You may see the Trials touted as the “ticket to London“-- but they’re really a ticket to Cardiff.
Top three go on to Wales, for one last chance to pull themselves into that top slot. Or to defend it. The rest will go home--to cry, or to celebrate their progress--to strategize, to go back to school, or to pick up their careers.
No one will forget.
Case in point--the Men’s Kayak class, in which Brett Heyl won the 2008 Olympic Trials on a windy last day in Charlotte-- only to have Scott Parsons, by placing third in the Augsburg World Cup, snatch away his chance to race in Beijing.
Neither athlete has forgotten.
Parsons paddles into the trials with a one-point lead, that point a kind of “thank you” for having qualified the U.S. men’s kayak spot at last year’s World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia. One point may not sound like much, when the Trials winner earns thirty. But then, second at the Trials is twenty-nine…
All three 2011 U.S. team members--Parsons, Heyl, and Scott Mann--are strong contenders. They all perform under pressure, no distinction to be made there. Heyl--taller, skinnier--is perhaps the most precise. But they’re all precise. Parsons combines precision with dashing intensity. Mann uses his precision to carry his excellent top speed.
Then there’s Jim Wade, the most challenging of the challengers. At six feet, one hundred sixty-five pounds, Wade is noticeably bigger than his rivals. Also more aggressive. For a couple of years now he’s been fast enough to make a U.S. team. Can he find the needed consistency?
It will be a battle out there…
The other classes are less crowded at the top--but that doesn’t mean that the single Olympic spot won’t be hotly contested.
Caroline Queen, a sophomore at nearby Davidson, comes in with an edge in the Women’s Kayak class, having, like Parsons, picked up one point by qualifying the women’s Olympic slot. She was a solid performer in last summer’s World Cups, and has shown no let-up in her preparation.
Ashley Nee, the winner of last year’s Team T trials, has been less consistent, but has raced well this spring and can definitely challenge Queen on any given day. The lanky Texan Michelle Kvanli has been a step back in the results.
But let’s not forget wild card Emily Jackson. Who can forget a World Freestyle Champion? Emily is one heck of a whitewater paddler, has raced slalom before, and has a slalom Olympian for a father to give her pointers. (You knew father E.J. started in slalom, right? Tenth in the ’92 Olympics.) The word from bankside is that Emily has shown steady improvement in training.
Men’s Single Canoe
Having failed to pick up a U.S. Olympic spot at the Bratislava Worlds, the Men’s C-1’s had to travel to Brazil this spring, and there beat out all other Americans, North and South, for the one remaining bed in Olympic village.
They did it with style. Although the Canadians spent a full five weeks in Foz do Iguaçu, preparing, the U.S. racers Benn Fraker and Casey Eichfeld, fresh from Australia, headed the Pan Am pack. Fraker took the “thank-you” point, but Eichfeld was close throughout--winning the semifinal, for example. With two very different styles--Fraker the more precise (sometimes daringly precise), Eichfeld the looser and more hard-charging-- they arrive at very similar results.
Last year’s third U.S. team member, Tad Dennis, has been working full-time as an air-traffic controller, but don’t count him out on his home course in Charlotte.
The “older guard” of Fraker and Eichfeld (ha ha, Fraker’s 23 and Eichfeld 22) seem to have maintained their lead over the young (18-year-old) Zachary “Bug” Lokken, while Tyler Hinton has improved to challenge Lokken on that next wave.
Women’s Single Canoe
Although Women’s C-1 is not an Olympic event this year, the class was added to the World Championships two years ago, and there’s little doubt it will be included in the Olympic program sometime in the future--2020, perhaps? This year’s trials will choose the C-1W team to the World Cup races and the Pre-Worlds.
Eighteen-year-old Hailey Thompson has led the U.S. C-1W field since she placed sixth at the 2010 Worlds in Tacen, Slovenia. Other contenders will be fellow U.S. team members Lisa Adams and Colleen Hickey, and Catie Vuksich.
(Note: Jamie McEwan's son Devin is competing in this event, so Jamie has recused himself from the C-2 preview, which was written by C&K editor Jeff Moag)
After failing to qualify the boat in Bratislava, the Americans sent two C-2s to the last-chance continental qualifier in Foz do Iguaçu where Eric Hurd and Jeff Larimer earned the Pan Am gold and, more importantly, a place in the Olympics for an American C-2.
Hurd and Larimer are the favorites to fill that London entry, but by no means a lock. There is very little daylight between them and the combination of Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan. There's also a darkhorse in this race--David Hepp and Scott McCleskey came off the couch to beat all comers at the 2011 U.S. Nationals. They could do it again.
Canadian Olympic Trials, Too!
It may seem strange that the Canadians have also chosen to use the Charlotte course for their National Trials--aren’t there plenty of great whitewater courses in Canada? There are, but none is a fully-artificial concrete sluiceway, the new norm for major competitions. Turns out, Charlotte provides the closest “London-like” venue.
Unfortunately, the traditionally strong Canadian program has come up short in the Olympic qualifying process this past year--except in Men’s Kayak. The forty-five year-old David Ford, a former World Champion and five-time Olympian, held off a young Brazilian at the Pan Ams to secure Canada its single Olympic entry. His Canadian competitors will put aside their gratitude as they attempt to wrest the coveted spot away from him.
In the other classes, the Canadian Trials will choose the National team to the World Cup and Pre-World Championships.
What About Michal?
Some may remember that Michal Smolen, son of U.S. development coach Rafal Smolen, won the U.S. trials in Men’s Kayak last year, but could not compete in Bratislava because he had not obtained his U.S. citizenship. History repeats itself-- the Polish-born Smolen still does not have the necessary bureaucratic nod. The eighteen-year-old Smolen will, however, be eligible to race for the U.S. in the Junior and Under-23 World Championships, to be held this summer in Wausau, Wisconsin.
Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world's best slalom paddlers compete for the sport's most significant prize.
Watch the Olympic Slalom Trials finals live on Saturday, April 14, at UniversalSports.com