BRIAN PINELLI reports from Prague, Czech Republic.
It was a masterful run tainted by just a few small mistakes.
Michal Smolen roared to his first career world cup podium, paddling to a bronze medal in men's K-1 at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in Prague on Saturday.
"I don't think I need to be upset with myself, it was a good result," Smolen said shortly after the race, referring to two costly penalties lower down the course. "It was my first international podium on the senior circuit."
The twenty-year-old U.S. kayaker's previous best world cup result had been a ninth place finish, in Prague 2012. In April, however, the young American put the slalom world on notice when he won the Under-23 World Championship in Australia.
Smolen's run was clean for more than two-thirds of the 22-gate course set, however he incurred four costly seconds of penalty time for touches on upstream gate 17 and 19. His time – on the nearly 400-meter long Troja whitewater course located just outside the Prague city center – was 92.06 seconds, 4.90 off the pace of winner Hannes Aigner of Germany.
"I was really trying to focus on making it clean down the course, but you get to the bottom and the energy is so high around you with that crowd," Smolen said referring to the highly enthusiastic Czech audience, perhaps pivos (beer) playing a role. "I think I let it get to me a little too much and I hit those two gates."
"You lose four seconds where I could have gone a little safer and finished second, or maybe even first," he said.
"Having two penalties and still being on the podium shows just how good of a run it was," said Rafal Smolen, Michal's father and coach. "He has the potential to be top three on a regular basis."
The Polish-born kayaker – who obtained his U.S. citizenship in February 2013 – was the final paddler to attack the rapids, having posted the fastest time in the morning semifinals, 0.16 quicker than Czech favorite Vit Prindis.
Smolen appeared to have victory within reach during the final run, clocking a midway split time 2.42 seconds quicker than the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Aigner. However, the late mistakes were detrimental.
"On (gate) 17, into the upright I was a little late and you could see my bow getting close to the inside pole. I stopped looking and hit the outside pole," Smolen explained. "I lost my focus there."
Regarding the touch on 19, Smolen said: "You try to cut the line and you hit the gate. There's a lot of give and take and you end up losing time with the penalty."
Smolen's world cup medal was the first individual medal by a U.S. kayaker or canoeist since teammate Fabien LeFevre claimed bronze at the 2013 season opening event in Cardiff.
Riverside in the Czech capital and perhaps even playing a role in Smolen's podium performance was three-time Olympian Scott Parsons, who served as a co-course setter along with Jiri Prskavec Sr.
After the race, Smolen's father Rafal admitted that it is sometimes difficult finding a balance between his two roles.
"As a coach, I'm looking at the technical aspects of his run and how to help him improve, but as a father it's emotional and there is nervousness," Smolen Sr. said. "I try to manage that, but it's definitely difficult."
Earlier this season, Smolen had a breakthrough victory, winning the Under-23 world championship in Penrith, Australia. He said it has given him great confidence, while also settling the nerves this season.
2012 Olympic silver medalist and local Czech hero Vavra Hradilek – who missed the race due to a back injury – gave props to the young U.S. kayaker.
"I was commentating for Czech TV and I was so excited about Michal's run," Hradilek said. "To beat so many big names here will give him so much energy for the second part of the season. He's got big potential and he's a good spirit too, which is important for our sport."
Nabbing second place on Saturday was Hradilek's Czech teammate and world championship silver medalist Jiri Prskavec, who completed the course 1.71 seconds ahead of Smolen.
As the Prague race is the third of five tour stops, Smolen will try to ride his wave of success into the final two world cup events in La Seu D'urqell, Spain (August 1-3) and Augsburg, Germany (August 15-17).
Smolen said he is trying to peak for the ICF World Championships in Deep Creek, Maryland, September 17-21 – the return of the showcase event to the U.S. for the first time in 25 years.
"I hope to keep building on top of this, but obviously the big one is world championships in Deep Creek," Smolen said. "All of the focus during the season is towards that with steps along the way."
Certainly, it was a proud day for the Smolen family as well as a testament to the hard work, commitment and dedication behind the scenes at USA Canoe/Kayak.