Olympic Canoe Slalom is a far different pursuit than cruising around a lake in your canoe this summer.
First off, don’t picture a traditional canoe. Outside the US, “canoeing” refers to canoeing or kayaking, which are differentiated by the paddle. The canoe has one blade, the kayak has two.
Both singles and doubles boats are short and light for maneuverability, and have closed decks — what we know as a kayak. The racers have to navigate a technical course of rapids and eddies with a series of 20-25 slalom gates.
The most striking difference is that the slalom race, which is modeled after ski slalom on snow, isn’t in a lake, river, or any other natural body. The venue is man-made, and this year, it’s the Deodoro Olympic Whitewater Stadium, in Deodoro, Rio, which is part of a whole complex that includes BMX and Mountain Bike facilities (both in the Olympics, but at separate venues).
While canoe/kayak slalom is a pretty fringe sport in the US, it’s widely watched in Europe.
The whitewater complex, built specifically for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games by a company called Whitewater Parks International, pumps 25 million liters (about 6.6 million gallons) of water through two “channels,” a class III-IV for competition and a class II-III for training. The course that the Olympic canoeists paddle is 250 meters.
“The course in Rio is unlike anything I’ve paddled before. It starts out easy at the top and gets more challenging as you go down. The course set for tomorrows semis and finals is quite tough and I’ve seen some of the top guys today struggle in the men’s canoe category. There’s very little room on the course for mistakes and not many places where you gain time without risking a penalty,” says Michal Smolen, (that’s pronounced “Mee-how”) Mens Single Kayak Slalom racer from Charlotte, North Carolina.Smolen, 22, came to the US at the age of 10 when his father, Rafal was hired to coach here.
Rafal was an Olympic canoe racer for Poland in the 1992 Olympics. Michal qualified for the 2012 Olympics by winning the US Olympic Team Trials Mens K-1, but after long attempting to get full time US Citizenship through Congress, his paperwork did not come through until after the Games in London. This year, Smolen again aced the trials. Earlier this week in Rio, he qualified for the semi finals.
“I’d say it fits my style well, as I’m not one to risk in a big competition such as the Olympics. I tend to be more careful when there’s a lot on the line and try to keep my boat moving swiftly through the water. There’s a good opportunity for that tomorrow and I’ll need only a solid performance to make it to the final. If I progress however, I’ll give it everything I have in the final. Right now I’m in very good shape and hopefully everything I have will be enough.”
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