Dana Mann killing it. Photo: James McEwan

By James McEwan

It’s always a pleasure to welcome international paddlers to U.S. races. But at this year’s U.S. Slalom Team Trials, their attendance came with a twist.

The U.S. trials were held May 17-19 on the ASCI course in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The organizers are gearing up to host the 2014 World Championships there, so the Trials doubled as an international ranking race. The quality of the visiting Europeans was particularly high: the fabled Hochschorner C-2 team and the equally legendary Michel Martikan of Slovakia—with five Olympic gold medals between them—attended, as well as Dana Mann, a World team medalist as part of the powerful Slovakian women’s team. And then there was Fabien Lefèvre, two-time World Kayak Champion, two-time Olympic medalist, who in the Bratislava Worlds made history by placing in both the C-2 and K-1 events.

Here comes the twist: both Mann and Lefèvre were racing for slots on the U.S. team.

In Dana Mann’s case this was new but not exactly surprising. Married since 2010 to longtime U.S. team member Scott Mann, Dana has become a familiar face at early-season U.S. races.

But Fabien Lefèvre just sailed into the Washington D.C. area this spring, announcing his intention to move here permanently and from now on race for the U.S.

Suddenly, the U.S. trials looked very different—especially since Lefèvre was racing in two classes—both in his traditional class, K-1, and in C-1. “I think it is boring to train in only one class,” comments Lefèvre. “And I think racing in two classes is the future of Slalom.”

And indeed in Men’s Kayak, Lefèvre led the field, just holding off the fast-developing Polish-American star, 19-year-old Michel Smolen. Earning the third spot on the U.S. kayak team was the flashy Ricky Powell, a medalist at last year’s Junior World Championships.

Michel Smolen. Photo: James McEwan

It was harder to know what to expect from Lefèvre in the C-1 class, in which he has relatively little experience, most of his single-bladed paddling having been done in the bow of a C-2. As a C-1 paddler, Lefèvre is one of the rare switchers, and that too might have seemed to bode ill, as if he had never quite made the transition from kayaking to C-1. It turned out that Lefèvre could make the boat glide in either class. Some top racing from last year’s Olympian Casey Eichfeld held off the Lefèvre challenge, but Fabien placed a close second. The 19-year-old athlete Zach Lokken rounded out the top three in good form.

The other European import, Dana Mann, won the Women’s Kayak class with a deliberate, powerful, very Slovakian approach to the course. The smaller, quicker-handed Ashley Nee placed a close second, and the young Evelyn Van Horn was third. Last year’s Olympian, Caroline Queen, has retired—at least for the moment—and did not attend.

It is a sad day when only two U.S. Men’s C-2’s show up for the Team Trials. Sorely missed was last year’s Olympic team of Jeff Larimer and Eric Hurd. Luckily the winners, Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan, had the opportunity of measuring themselves against not only an excellent Canadian team, but also the Hochschorners, still considered the best in the world. The young U.S. team of Elliot Bertrand and Michael Rudnitsky had some nice runs that showed a lot of promise for the future.

In the Women’s C-1 class Colleen Hickey held off a challenge from second-placing Micki Reeves Jarrahian. Jarrahian was ambitious enough to travel to Europe for an early season series, the Pyrenees Cup, where she placed third overall. The third U.S. spot went to the veteran Catie Vuksich.

No matter what the results, this will be a history-making team. No one has doubled in the two singles men’s classes on any other U.S. team; as far as I know no one has ever done it on any team at all. Fabien Lefèvre thinks this will be the wave of the future. The always innovative Lefèvre has already pulled off some surprising successes. It will be fascinating to see how his latest innovation plays itself out.

The U.S. team will assemble for the first World Cup race in Cardiff, Wales in June; two more World Cup races will follow on the subsequent weekends, in Augsburg, Germany and La Seu d’Urgell, Spain. There is then a gap in the schedule until the last two weekends of August, with World Cup races in Tacen, Yugoslavia, and Bratislava, Slovakia. The season will wrap up with its main event, the World Championships in Prague, Czech Republic, held from September 11th through the 14th.

Race course. Photo: Caitlin McEwan