By Joe Potoczak
Another world champion has been dethroned.
Vavrinec Hradilek, the 2013 world champion and 2012 Olympic silver medalist from the Czech Republic, finished his semifinal run in 22nd place, leaving him out of the final and guaranteeing that we will have a new champion in K-1 this year.
There’s still a chance that new champ will be an American, albeit by way of France.
The big story for American slalom fans going into this slalom worlds was the aging champion Fabien Lefevre and rising star Smolen both making a championship push on home soil. This afternoon, Lefevre proved his veteran status, and his value to the U.S. He finished 10th, claiming the last spot in Saturday’s K-1 finals.
"I just tried stay focused and push my boat down the course as fast as I could," says Lefevre of his successful semi-final run. The two-time Olympic medalist, who starred on the French team for more than a decade, says he enjoys living in the United States and paddling in American colors. "It only took a short time to feel at home here in the U.S. I love the people that I meet here." LeFevre will now have the opportunity to win a world championship for his adopted home country.
Smolen, the young American star, started his run brilliantly, seeming to fly through the gates. At the first time-split he was actually two seconds faster than the current leader. But a mistake halfway down the course momentarily brought his incredible speed to a screeching halt and would cost Smolen dearly. He was within the top ten following his run, and then had to sit on the bank and watch as 14 more paddlers took their best shot at pushing him down the leaderboard. In the end, four of them beat his time. Smolen finishes this slalom worlds in 13th place. At only 21 years old, Smolen continues to show that he has an incredible career ahead of him.
Ricky Powell was the third American boat in the semi-final. He was the last of the US K-1s to go, thanks to a great finish yesterday which provided a higher seed. Powell who is another of the US team’s young stars, at 25 years old, is always an impressive paddler to watch, with an acrobatic style. He finished 16th.
Also today, athletes competed in the preliminary rounds of women’s K-1 and men’s C-2. The U.S. has had another productive morning, as Dana Mann, the Slovakian-born U.S. transplant, paddled with the confidence of a seasoned competitor, planting herself as the 13th seed in the semifinal. Maryland native Ashley Nee and U.S. teammate Anna Maria Ifarraguerri failed o advance, finishing 38th and 49th on the day.
The stress of competing with the best in the world was best stated by French paddler Nouria Newman. Though Newman recently completed a historic female first full decent of the notorious Grand Canyon of the Stikine, she says that here at the slalom worlds her confidence is a bit down. "On the Stikine I was very happy, it was the time of my life – but when you don’t train slalom for a few weeks it is difficult to stay at the same pace as the other athletes. I am just in survival mode right now." Newman did survive the course at ASCI today, advancing to the semi-finals in 20th place.
Bow man Devin McEwan and backseat driver Casey Eichfeld put up a stunning performance in the Men’s C-2 today. After their first run they were in the top 20 to advance, but not by much. Realizing they had to put the pedal to the metal to secure their spot, the American duo shifted into a whole different gear. "We realized we could probably be a bit cleaner," says Eichfeld of their first run. "We were getting to the bottom of the course and I was thinking, okay, four more gates don’t screw this up." Eichfeld adds of their impressive second run that not only secured their place in the semi-final, but also had them crack the top ten. The reaction from the fans, team mates, and of course themselves was ecstatic. They have grown into a solid team at C-2, sharing a trust and thought process that leaves little to be said on the water. "On a good run we won’t say anything," says McEwan.
McEwan and Eichfeld also took the time to share some information about the community outreach Team USA has been involved with leading up to the Worlds. Eight local charities teamed up with a different US paddler, through an initiative called Garrett County Gives, to help raise awareness and donations for their cause. "It gives us a chance to connect with the community and draw positive attention to the sport," says Eichfeld, who is working with the House of Hope as his Charity. The athletes didn’t necessarily pick which charity they would work with, but McEwan said that his charity, the Garrett County Humane Society, did ask him how he felt about dogs. "I love puppies!" McEwan exclaims, with a giant grin. The other athletes involved with local charities are Zack Lokken, Rick Powell, Fabien Lefevre, Ashley Nee, Colleen Hickey, and Michal Smolen.
The other two US C-2 teams of Benn Fraker and Scott McCleskey, and Eric Hurd and Jeff Larimer did not advance. One of the biggest stories from the C-2 Prelims were the defending World Champs, David Florence and Richard Hounslow of Great Britain, being eliminated in the first round. They finished in 22nd place.