By Jamie McEwan
Last night, after day two of three, the top racers were showing a wide variety of reactions. Some were tight-lipped, some hyper-analytical, some loose, talkative, and almost punch-drunk from two days of alternating tension and release.
But this afternoon at two o’clock, with an hour to go before race-time, they were all wearing their game faces. A brief nod or a curt “Hi” was the biggest reaction you could expect.
The course was challenging, the pressure intense, a combination that resulted in more flips and missed gates than usual. A number of top racers picked up the dreaded fifty- second penalties for failing to negotiate one of the nineteen gates, and in some cases these penalties were decisive in team selection.
No such inconsistency for Scott Parsons, who in K-1M was almost unmoving on the otherwise constantly shifting results board. With three first places, and two second places, out of six runs, there was no need of a calculator to ascertain that Parsons had won the men’s kayak class. Jim Wade had two excellent runs today to claim second place, and Brett Heyl placed third. Scott Mann took the heartbreaking fourth place. (A shout-out to Michal Smolen, who placed second overall, but is not eligible for a spot on the team because of his citizenship status.)
First place in Women's Kayak, up for grabs as of this morning, was seized by Ashley Nee with an impressive first run, and solidified with her second. Caroline Queen was a strong second, and Emily Jackson, who seemed to improve with her every run down the course, a solid third. Despite Nee’s win today, Queen retains the edge in the Olympic selection thanks to her point from Bratislava.
And will Jackson, usually thought of as a freestyle specialist, bother to make the trip to the World Cup race in Cardiff, Wales? Oh yes, she's excited to go
Having won the first day, but stumbling the second, Benn Fraker nailed down first place in Men’s C-1 with a blazing first run that would have topped the leader board for that run in the Men’s Kayak class–a rare revenge of the canoes. Casey Eichfeld was second on both runs, and a close second overall. Bug Lokken surprised not only the rest of the field, but also, he later confessed, himself, by posting the best second run, and thus securing third place overall and a spot on the U.S. team.
In Men’s C-2, Larimer and Hurd won overall with an excellent series of races, including a very fast first run today. In second place was the team of Eichfeld and McEwan, with the best second run. The veterans Hepp and McCleskey, who had trouble with the tough course today on both runs, ended up third. “That’s slalom,” said Scott McCleskey. “Sometimes you’re up, but….” And he shrugged.
Although the Women’s C-1 event was easy to overlook in the Olympic frenzy, it was a hard-fought trials with many shifts in the lead. In the end it was Colleen Hickey who took over the top spot, Micki Reeves in second, and Hailey Thompson overcoming a difficult first day to place third. (Note: the original placing posted by USACK saying Reeves took first and Hickey second, which was initially reported in this story, was in error.)
Although these Olympic Trials did indeed choose the 2012 U.S. National Team, they did not finalize Olympic selections. There is still a chance for team members to gain points in Cardiff, Wales, the first stop on the World Cup Circuit, June 8—10.
But U.S. athletes can only gain points at Cardiff if they place in the top twenty in this international race–not an easy feat. Assuming that last year’s results predict this year’s performance, only the Men’s K-1 and Men’s C-1 classes are likely to do that. There's a good chance that Caroline Queen in Women's K-1, and the Larimer and Hurd team in Men's C-2, will maintain their lead in the point totals and go on to race in London.
In my purely objective judgment, having nothing to do with the fact that I am the proud father of Devin McEwan (the bow half of the Eichfeld/McEwan team), I believe that the Men’s C-2’s have improved since Bratislava, and have a reasonable prospect of breaking into the top twenty. As a matter of fact I think that the K-1 Women have improved as well. If so, the standings so far may prove provisional in all four Olympic classes.
It is worth noting that, by a curious consequence of the severely limited number of Olympic slalom athletes–only one entry per country–it might be easier to win an Olympic medal than to break into the top ten at Cardiff, where three entries per country are allowed.
After their tough, demanding, emotional three-day Trial by Water, the athletes on the newly named U.S. Team deserve a pat on the back and an easy week–and then they will gear up for a final reckoning in Cardiff. And then on to London.
Where–to answer your unspoken question–U.S. slalom team members have a reasonable chance of gaining a place on the Olympic podium.
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.