Scott Fowler

Olympic whitewater hopefuls paddling close to their golden goals

Michal Smolen, left, and Casey Eichfeld are Olympic hopefuls who could clinch a spot in Rio with strong paddling performances Friday and Saturday at the US National Whitewater Center.
Michal Smolen, left, and Casey Eichfeld are Olympic hopefuls who could clinch a spot in Rio with strong paddling performances Friday and Saturday at the US National Whitewater Center. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Casey Eichfeld and Michal Smolen separately moved to the Charlotte area about eight years ago, drawn like magnets to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. They wanted to train on its frothy, raging currents and to make multiple U.S. Olympic teams using the center as their base.

Smolen settled in with his parents in Gastonia. Eichfeld put down roots in Charlotte. "I've made a life here," Eichfeld said.

Entering this weekend's Olympic team trials at the USNWC, Eichfeld and Smolen are each just a few successful runs short of their goal. The U.S. Olympic team is selected by total points accumulated over a span of three races and the Charlotte race is just the second one of those. But Eichfeld and Smolen have accumulated such a lead in their respective events that they could clinch a berth in Brazil with strong performances in Charlotte.

Eichfeld has already made two U.S. Olympic teams and is shooting for his third to be at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He would like to make “four or five” Olympic teams before he's done, Eichfeld said. But unless you follow canoe/kayak slalom racing closely, you've probably never heard of him.

Eichfeld, 26, manages to eke out a living in the sport, in part supplemented by his GoFundMe page and the money he makes at the USNWC teaching people how to kayak or else filling in as a raft guide. Think of Serena Williams coming off the tennis court after her own intense workout, then changing clothes and teaching some weekend hackers how to hit a backhand, and you've got the idea of what Eichfeld's normal day is like. Not that he minds.

“It's hard, but we make it through,” Eichfeld said. “I have done this my entire life. As I've gotten better and better, the expenses have grown. You find a way. … You do what you have to do to be happy.”

Originally from Pennsylvania, Eichfeld has a big year planned. He hopes to compete in the Olympics in August, and then he plans to get married in December. He said his fiancee will likely not join him at the Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects. “We don't know when children are in our future, but at this point we don't know what the lasting effects are and we want to be safe,” Eichfeld said.

Smolen, 22, has traveled a far different path. He was born in Poland. An only child, both of his parents were national-level athletes (his father a kayaker, his mother a team handball player). The family moved to the United States when Michal was 10, and it was only then that he took up his father's sport. Rafal Smolen came very close to competing in the Olympics for Poland and did make the country's national team. He is now a U.S. national team coach who helps train both Eichfeld and his son.

The elder Smolen is the only coach that Michal has ever had. The father and son have a good relationship, Michal said, but it has always included a bit of arguing.

“We have a lot of ups and downs,” Smolen said. “When there's a serious race coming up, we try to focus on not bickering too much and to figure out what exactly I need to do and how I need to approach a race.”

Smolen had a shot at joining Eichfeld on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. But his chance was short-circuited because he had not yet obtained U.S. citizenship. He did not become an official U.S. citizen until 2013, seven months after those Olympics in London had concluded.

“That was a big letdown,” Smolen said. “We had tried to expedite my citizenship in 2012 but it didn't work. But I probably wasn't ready anyway. Now I have a real chance at a medal.”

Eichfeld does as well. And an Olympic medal of any color would be a big deal for both men in a sport that is dominated by Europeans. Last year Smolen (in kayak) and Eichfeld (in single canoe) each won a gold medal at the Pan-Am games. And in an event that contained most of the same athletes that will compete in Rio, Smolen finished third and won bronze at the world championships in London. Eichfeld was fourth.

“It's not so easy to say, 'I'm going to and get a medal at the Olympics,’” Smolen said. “Everybody there wants the same thing that you do. But if I stick to my plan and hold my composure, things will line up right.”

Team trials

The U.S. Olympic team trials at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte are open to the public at no additional charge beyond the center's $5 per car fee. Spectators can bring camp chairs and beach blankets to watch the races. For a day-by-day schedule, go to www.usnwc.org and click on “News.”

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