PHOTOS AND TEXT BY BRIAN PINELLI
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — This week's ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships almost didn’t happen. That’s 360 of the world's finest paddlers representing more than 50 nations that almost missed their chance to compete on the renowned Troja whitewater course, just outside Prague’s historic city center. Three months ago, torrential rains and subsequent flooding ravaged parts of the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. Water levels on Prague's Vltava River rose substantially causing residents in parts of the country to evacuate their homes.
Damage was substantial at the Prague Canoeing Center venue, where a 410-meter stretch of whitewater on a 12- to 14-meter-wide channel of the Vltava has been a training and competition site since 1980. The rain flooded the ground level boathouse, tore apart the course and deposited various debris strewn around the venue. The impending world championships were in question until an ambitious paddler and volunteer-driven relief effort took shape.
"When I walked here right after all the water had come down and we started doing the basic repairs, it was frustrating," said Czech 2012 Olympic silver medalist and hometown favorite Vavrinec Hradilek. "It was crazy, like seeing a terrible movie. With the mind that the world championships were coming in three months it was not nice at all."
"What an unbelievable job by this local organizing committee to pull all of this together," added USA Canoe and Kayak C.E.O. Joe Jacobi about this week's competition. "We're racing here with what feels like no intrusions in the way we prepare for the program."
Competition in five disciplines begins on Thursday. Team USA's roster offers a new look and relatively young squad since the retirement of veteran paddlers Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl following the London Olympics and a hiatus by Caroline Queen.
Bringing boatloads of talent and potential at just age 19 is Michal Smolen. Smolen, who was born in Poland, has considerable competition experience in Europe and finished fifth at last season's Under-23 World Championships. He makes his senior world championship debut this week.
"I think with events like these there is quite a bit more pressure for most people, a lot more people watching and the whole atmosphere is a bit different," Smolen said. "But I'm going to treat it like any race and just keep my focus."
"I've been here for a big chunk of my summer and I've learned a lot of new tricks on the course that I think people that train here all the time have an advantage," he said. "Staying here for awhile allowed me to get accustomed to this water and I'm really prepared well for worlds."
Two-time Olympian Casey Eichfeld, 23, is serving double duty this week competing in both C-1 and C-2 along with partner Devin McEwan.
Eichfeld gave high marks to the artificial whitewater course featuring 25 gates, a flow rate of 16 cubic meters per second and a 3.6-meter drop.
"I really like the course here, it's a lot of fun, not very large whitewater, but it's nice and technical and I like that," Eichfeld said.
"Ideally, I'm looking for a finals finish, if not better than that," he said. "I'm very capable of paddling well, it's just having my focus and being me on the water."
Kayakers Fabien Lefevre, 31, and Dana Mann, 29, will represent the United States for the first time at the world championships after previously competing for France and Slovakia, respectively. Lefevre, who won his first world championship gold in 2002 at age 20, has two medals in five world cup events this season. He is also a 13-time world championship medalist.
Other U.S. athletes taking to the waters are Ashley Nee (K-1), Richard Powell (K-1), Zachary Lokken (C-1) and Colleen Hickey (C-1)
Top international names include London 2012 Olympic gold medalists Daniele Molmenti (K-1) of Italy and Emilie Fer (K-1) of France, silver medalists Jessica Fox (K-1) of Australia, Sideris Tasiadis (C-1) from Germany and Czech favorite Hradilek, defending world champion Peter Kauzer (K-1) of Slovenia, Great Britain's David Florence and six-time Olympian Stepanka Hilgertova.
For Team USA, this week's event takes on added significance as a barometer for next season's world championships, which will be staged at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. It will mark the first time in 25 years that the ICF Canoe Slalom Worlds will be held in the U.S.
Jacobi says he is optimistic about the U.S. chances over the next five days of competition on the Vltava whitewater.
"If you look at our results this year, we certainly have the engines out there to put a number of athletes into the finals," Jacobi said. "If we can do that, then it certainly puts us in a position to win medals here."
The world championships officially begin on Thursday morning with competition running through Sunday. All finals will be contested on Saturday and Sunday.