By Jamie McEwan
A fun, carnival atmosphere prevailed at the US National Whitewater Center during the first day of the Olympic Trials yesterday, with zip liners passing overhead every few minutes, casting fast-moving shadows, and an enthusiastic crowd. A strong contingent of Canadian racers added an international flair. The day was clear, the sun was hot—and so was the racing.
Slalom races on difficult whitewater look chaotic. The surges and boils seem to add such an element of chance, that you begin to think the results will be as jumbled and chaotic as the water. And results after first runs on the Charlotte course this afternoon—the race began at 3 PM—did seem to reflect the water’s shifting nature. Yet when the spray had settled at close to 7 PM, the results sheets had returned to a surprisingly orderly pattern.
Yes, there was Scott Parsons, atop the Men’s Kayak class. Parsons came down with a kind of controlled intensity—think of a steam boiler under pressure—that temporarily ruled the waves. Brett Heyl jumped from a first run placing of twenty-third to second. And there was Scott Mann, a solid third.
But in the trials format the athlete’s best run of the day is counted—and so Jim Wade‘s first-run third place—second among counting athletes—puts him in solid contention. (The ineligible eighteen-year-old Michal Smolen won the first runs, even with a two-second penalty.)
Women’s Kayak showed a similar pattern to Men’s, with somewhat shaken first run results—Ashley Nee was first among the U.S. racers, no huge surprise, but Michelle Kvanli placed second, ahead of the favorite, Caroline Queen. Expectations were reasserted when Queen came back to win second runs, with Nee in second, Kvanli third, and Emily Jackson fourth.
The Men’s Single Canoe class, on the other hand, was almost eerily consistent, with both runs reading in the same order: Benn Fraker, Casey Eichfeld, Tad Dennis, Tyler Hinton, and Zachary Lokken. I believe Fraker gets the prize for making the tough offsets in the middle of the course look easy—yes, easier than for any of the kayaks.
In the Men’s C-2 the team of Jeff Larimer and Eric Hurd won both runs, but both of their rivals stayed in contention, not far behind. Dave Hepp and Scott McCleskey, a top U.S. team between 1998 and 2004, looked very smooth on their home course to place second on second runs. As I go to press, the first run results are still unofficial, but the rumor is that the same order prevailed, with Devin McEwan and Casey Eichfeld a close third on both runs.
The one class that never did settle into any expected pattern was the Women’s Single Canoe class, with Micki Reeves, Colleen Hickey, and Lisa Adams all placing ahead of the favored Hailey Thompson, who collected at least one fifty-second penalty on each run.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is the strong showing by the blast-from-the-past team of Hepp and McCleskey, who have turned the C-2 class into a thrilling three-boat race. In other classes it will be the usual suspects in contention—but the order among them is far from clear. And in the Olympic year—with only one Olympic boat per class—that order is crucially important. It’s going to be tight. Stay tuned!
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.
Click HERE to read McEwan’s full pre-event rundown of the 2012 Olympic Slalom Trials, and Click HERE to see video of Eric Jackson running the Trials racecourse in Charlotte, N.C. You can also watch the finals live on Saturday, April 14, at UniversalSports.com