With commanding runs Saturday, two Charlotte area paddlers won slots on the U.S. canoe /kayak slalom team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.
The new Olympians are Michal Smolen of Gastonia, 22, who locked up the men’s kayak slot, and Casey Eichfeld, 26, of Mount Holly, who took the single canoe slot.
It will be the first Olympics for Smolen, who is ranked 20th internationally in a sport dominated by Europeans, and the third for Eichfeld, who competed in 2008 and 2012.
“I’m really happy to finally win an Olympic slot,” said Smolen, who was born in Poland and became U.S. citizen in 2013. Both athletes they were honored to make the Olympic team, with three slots still to be filled.
U.S. slalom teams haven’t won a medal since 2004 and Smolen and Eichfeld aim to break the grip of the Europeans. Smolen said competition on the world level is more intense. “I really have to step up my game and take every opportunity to get better.”
Smolen rolled up first place on Saturday with a fastest time of 95.66 seconds, beating out second -place John Hastings of Canada by 1.36 seconds. Richard Powell of Gastonia came in third, 2.18 seconds off.
Smolen said he minimized any risks on the first of two runs, then soared down the course in the second run. He said the realization of winning the slot hit him Friday after he finished first with a 5- second lead.
Like Smolen, Eichfeld performed at the top of his game. “I needed a little bit of pressure to bring out my speed,” Eichfeld said, “It’s an honor to be among a very small percentage of athletes who ever see their third Olympic games.”
Eichfeld’s fastest speed in two runs was 98.59 seconds, topping Zachary Lokken of Durango, Colo., by 2.08 seconds. “I’m excited to go to Rio. I’ve been training for Rio, now I know this is for real.”
The Charlotte team trials was the second venue in which paddlers can earn points toward winning a slot on the Olympic team. Both athletes had accrued points at the 2015 Canoe Slalom World Championships in London; no other paddlers in the Charlotte trials had points.
Smolen just needed to come in third or better in the field of 22 kayakers to win the Olympic slot; Eichfeld needed finish second or first to win the single canoe spot in a field of eight canoeists.
The next stop for those competing for women’s kayak and men’s double canoe slots will be in Oklahoma City on May 7 8. Those trials will set the rest of the Olympic team.