By Joe Potoczak
It's been 25 years since the whitewater slalom world championships were last held in the United States, but it looked like business as usual for American racers in the opening heats of men's kayak and solo canoe.
All five American men competing Thursday advanced to the semifinal round in workmanlike fashion, including Fabien Lefevre who qualified in both K-1 and C-1.
Michal Smolen, praised as America’s best medal prospect, put the crowd on the edge of their seats. Smolen was looking to make a statement on his first run flying out of the starting gate. But a 50-second penalty for missing a gate left him languishing at the tail end of the standings after the first run. He had no margin for error in his second run. Despite the pressure of high expectations, Smolen showed why he is a rising star in the sport, posting a clean and conservative second run to qualify for the semis.
The other member of the men’s K-1 squad is Richard Powell. You may not have heard of him; he’s not a 6-time world champion and 2-time Olympic medalist like Lefevre, or a rising phenom like Smolen. But today at Deep Creek Powell let everyone know that he came to win. Always a visually impressive paddler, Powell put up the best American K-1 performance of the day, placing 13th.
In men’s C-1, Lefevre, Casey Eichfeld, and Zachary "Bug" Lokken all made the cut to the top 30 and will race again in the semifinal on Saturday. Lefevre, the former French kayak superstar turned American dual threat, was expected to make the cut, as was team veteran Casey Eichfeld. But Bug Lokken, the 20-year-old from Durango, Colo., was something of a revelation, roaring down the course finishing 13th after his first lap of the day. That solid first run would hold up, when all was said and done it put him in 22nd place with a ticket to the semis. It was the first time Bug has made it past the preliminary round of the Worlds, but after this achievement he showed an incredible maturity with the situation.
"I hadn’t had a great season up to this point, so it feels good to advance," says Lokken. “I try to look at this as just another race. Having it in the U.S., that is just the Cherry on top."
None of the American competitors in women’s C-1 -- Colleen Hickey, Micki Reeves and Tracy Hines -- advanced to the semifinal round. The race belonged to Australian Jessica Fox, the reigning C-1 world champion and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in K-1, who posted the top qualifying time with a seemingly controlled effort.
The big favorites reigned in the other classes as well. Defending K-1 men’s World Champion and extreme creek racer Vavrinec Hradilek had a little fun in his second run today. Toward the end of the course Hradilek threw a stroke seldom seen from a kayaker: a cross-bow. Knowing that he’s already made the cut, Hradilek decided to show the crowd something different. "I have been practicing it a lot during my training runs," says Hradilek. "When I can throw that in during a competition it is a lot of fun, and something more spectacular for the people watching." He has also been known to throw the notorious brown claw–a rare sight in the typically buttoned-down slalom scene. The defending champ hopes to have fun all weekend long attempting to hang on to his crown.
Wednesday night, an international mix of athletes, coaches, and fans packed the gymnasium of Garrett County Community College in McHenry, Maryland, along with many local supporters. They were welcomed to McHenry with dance, song, and some insane pogo stick stunts. These were the opening ceremonies to the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, the official commencement of this year’s biggest international slalom race, taking place at Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI). Team US was brought onstage to be introduced to the home crowd, and minutes later USA Canoe/Kayak CEO Joe Jacobi stated to the American athletes, "Take a deep breath and enjoy this moment." When the evening festivities concluded the athletes marched out under the flags of the 45 countries represented, followed by their fans and supporters, who would continue the celebration down the street at Wisp Resort, while the athletes would head back to their respective camps to prepare for what lay ahead.
Later in the evening, Eddy The Otter, the official mascot of this slalom worlds, carried the ICF flag on to the chairlift at Wisp ski resort - The mountain which ASCI sits perched on top of. As Eddy rode the lift off into the dark night, fireworks ensued overhead, and when the grand finale was finished the only thing left in the air was the anticipation of Thursday’s race.
As the water turned on this morning it swirled and churned through the challenges the athletes will face in the upcoming days. Features with names like Pinball Alley, Savage Falls and Fuzzy Dice. The racers walked the course during this morning’s demonstration runs, scouting their lines, and attempting to put down the fastest run possible in their minds.
The layout of the gates were designed by former U.S. Olympic paddler Scott Parsons, and also a former French paddler Marianne Agulhon. Their job is to position the gates in puzzles that put the skill of the best slalom athletes in the world to the test.
Spectators are filtering in to the stadium seating that has been built for this race, with 6,000 tickets sold as of Tuesday. NBC cameras are positioned throughout the course so they will be able to catch every turn and paddle stroke each racer takes as they negotiate the waves, pourovers, and inconsistent boils of the man-made whitewater park - and will be broadcasting the footage directly to the jumbotron that sits directly across from the crowd, as to not miss a moment of the action.
The international visitors have been enjoying the hospitality of the small mountain community.
"In Europe we have this vision of America as big cities, like New York," says 2012 K-1 Olympic Champion Daniele Molmenti. "But here it is small, very nice and welcoming." Molmenti spent time here over the summer, training, and during that time stayed with a local family which was gracious enough to share their home with the slalom superstar. Molmenti is not however able to compete in this year’s world championships after a recent car accident. He did not have any serious injuries, but did unfortunately suffer some whiplash that is keeping him out of the race. Nevertheless, Molmenti is here to support his Italian teammates, and watch the big race. Since he won’t have a chance to grab the title himself, he provided some insight as to who he thought might take the men’s K-1 crown.
"Of course there is the American Michal Smolen who could win this race. He has been doing well and he is at home," says Molmenti. "The Germans are also looking really strong. They are very fit, and this is a physical course," Molmenti adds. German kayakers Sebastian Schubert and Fabian Doerfler are currently sitting at 1st and 3rd respectively in the ICF world rankings. Smolen is 25th but has been steadily ascending these ranks.