The road to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games passes through Charlotte this week as 40 of the nation’s top paddlers compete in two days of canoe-kayak slalom racing for five slots on the U.S. Olympic team at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
The Friday-Saturday team trials will be one of three events in which paddlers earn points toward winning a slot. Two athletes, Michal Smolen, 22, of Gastonia, and Casey Eichfeld, 26, of Mount Holly, a two-time Olympian, can lock up team positions with strong runs.
The five slots consist of men’s kayak (K1), women’s kayak (K1), men’s canoe (C1) and men’s tandem canoe (C2).
The U.S. team hopes to bring home a medal or medals from Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5-21 in a sport dominated by Europeans. The last U.S. slalom medal came in 2004.
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Smolen said winning runs involve more than physical training. “Those who are the fastest made better decisions mentally,” said Smolen, who’s on the water 90 minutes a day.
The team trials, with Tuesday-Wednesday practice sessions, will be open to the public at no additional charge beyond the center’s $5 fee per car. Spectators can bring camp chairs to watch the races along the Competition Channel or on the grassy berm behind the finish line. Up to 15,000 spectators are expected Saturday, said spokesman Eric Osterhus.
Last year, Smolen (K1) and Eichfeld (C1) each won a gold medal at the Pan-Am Games in Toronto; Smolen finished third at the 2015 Canoe Slalom World Championships in London and Eichfeld, fourth. Points won at the world championships, Charlotte and Oklahoma City (May 7-8), determine the U.S. team.
Aaron Mann, spokesman for USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for slalom racing, said Smolen can nail down the K1 slot by finishing third or higher; Eichfeld can take the C1 slot with second place or higher.
Athletes race non-stop against the clock for fastest times. Here’s what to look for:
▪ Kayaks and single canoes look similar as top decks cover both. But kayakers sit and use double-bladed paddles. Canoeists kneel and use single-bladed paddles.
▪ Paddlers navigate rapids while going through a maze of 18-25 hanging gates. They enter the red-and-white-ringed gates from downstream, stroke upstream and exit. They pass under the green-and-white-ringed gates heading downstream.
▪ Touching a gate pole adds a 2-second penalty to a paddler’s time. Missing a gate adds 50 seconds. At the least, paddlers must put their head and part of their boat under the gate to avoid a penalty.
▪ The fastest competitors can run the course in 90 to 100 seconds; runs can be won or lost by tenths, even hundredths of a second. Paddlers strive for speed combined with tight turns and pivots.
▪ Slicing through turbulence, they look for conveyer belts of “green” water for speed, not frothy whitewater. Also, because it’s denser, green water gives paddle strokes more power.
▪ Like chess players, paddlers plan their moves well ahead, constantly lining up zig-zag routes to upcoming gates and solving problems.
The worst section? The big drop near the end, where chaotic water at the bottom can cost seconds. Eichfeld said it’s important not only to have a plan but also to make changes quickly. “It’s your ability to adapt to what’s going on on the water,” he said.
For a schedule, go to www.usnwc.org and click on news.