By Jeff Moag
American Michel Smolen laid down a faultless final run to claim the gold medal in men's kayak at the 2014 Under-23 Slalom World Championship in Australia yesterday.
Smolen was in fourth position going into the final and deciding run. Facing a field stacked with World Cup and World Championship medalists as well as the defending U23 World Champion, he knew that he'd have to be fast and clean just to make the podium, let alone claim the world title.
Smolen, 20, blazed down the course and to the top of the leader board with a time of 93.10 seconds. Only Jiri Prskavec of the Czech Republic had posted a faster raw time, but a two-second penalty at the top of the course left him 1.57 seconds behind Smolen.
Slalom finals are run with the fastest qualifiers running last, meaning Smolen had a nervous wait as the three athletes who had qualified ahead of him each took a shot at his time. One by one, they fell short.
"It feels amazing, I still cannot believe it. It is just an amazing feeling and I am so happy right now," Smolen told the ICF press pool.
"The guys I was up against are really good, some of them were champions last year and the previous year so it was really tight competition," Smolen said.
Prskavec, the silver medalist at last year's senior World Championships, finished third. Defending U23 champion Mathieu Biazizzo of France was seventh.
While Biazizzo and others found the technical 23-gate course challenging, it played to the American's strength.
"The course was really open and you could just paddle hard in some open sections and that is where I gained the most time and I finished with a really solid run," Smolen said.
Many see Smolen as the future of American slalom racing. Born in Krakow, Poland--his father and coach Rafal is a former Polish team paddler--Smolen grew up in the United States. He now lives in Charlotte, N.C. and trains at the U.S. National Whitewater Center there.
Smolen finished second at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at age 18, but was unable to compete in London because he was not yet a U.S. citizen. He has since received his U.S. passport, and has been training well in anticipation of the Senior World Championships in Deep Creek, Maryland in September.