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Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Voyage is complex for whitewater paddlers

By Bonnie D. Ford

Fifteen months out from the London 2012 Games might seem early for a milestone qualifying competition, but last weekend's USA Canoe/Kayak slalom team trials were just that.

Six runs over three days at the National Whitewater Center outside Charlotte, N.C., determined the men's and women's teams that will compete at every important event for the rest of the year, including this summer's World Championships, World Cup races, a July test event in London and the Pan American Championships. Results from those events will determine how many slots the U.S. will have in London.

The three men named to the team in the Single Kayak (K1) event will be familiar to those who follow the sport: 2004 Olympian Brett Heyl; 2008 Olympian Scott Parsons and two-time national champion Scott Mann, who was the Olympic alternate in both of those Games.

Brett Heyl
Brett Heyl, 29, said he committed to another four years of elite competition after a bad day at the wrong time -- the final selection race for the 2008 Olympics -- cost him a repeat trip.
Heyl, 29, said he committed to another four years of elite competition after a bad day at the wrong time -- the final selection race for the 2008 Olympics -- cost him a repeat trip.

"I didn't want that to define me," said the Norwich, Vt., native, who is close to completing a degree in economics and urban planning at the University of North Carolina. He finished 15th at the 2004 Olympics and was the World Cup silver medalist in 2008.

Heyl, Mann and Parsons are a formidable group, "all bona fide world medal contenders," USA Canoe/Kayak CEO and 1992 double canoe slalom Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi said. And under normal circumstances, they would be the heavy favorites to vie for the one precious Olympic slot in their event.

But there was an unusual twist to these team trials. None of those three men had the fastest cumulative time, determined by their best four runs in the K1 event. That distinction belonged to 17-year-old Michal Smolen, who is not eligible to compete for the U.S. senior team because he is not a citizen -- yet.

Smolen, born in Poland, immigrated to the U.S. eight years ago with his mother to join his father, Rafal, who had been granted a work visa to coach at a club in North Carolina. The family has remained there ever since, and Smolen has had his permanent resident's green card for three years. Under normal circumstances, he'd have to wait another two before his citizenship application could be approved.

There are fewer citizenship restrictions in junior competition, and Smolen, a junior U.S. champion, finished fourth at the junior world championships last year. He said that getting a U.S. passport is not just a matter of athletic convenience for him.

"I learned the sport here," he said. "I grew up here and trained with the U.S. athletes. Going [to the Olympics] for the U.S. would mean more to me."

The high school senior, who plans to attend Queens University in Charlotte this fall, has applied for an expedited citizenship process. If that fails, his fallback plan is to explore competing for Poland, although that could make future competition for the U.S. problematic. He is still age-eligible to race in the junior ranks this year and said he thinks he can stay race-fit. Meanwhile, his father was just hired as USA Canoe/Kayak's slalom national development and coaching manager at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Heyl said he isn't dwelling on Smolen's citizenship status or the weekend's results. The events of 2008 took an emotional toll, and Heyl's goal this time around is to manage the stress and focus on what he can control -- his own performance.

Smolen "obviously has incredible potential, and he's incredible racing this [Charlotte] course," Heyl said. "He knows it better than anyone. I train with him, and he pushes me every day, and that's good for me. It's important to keep this in perspective."

World Championships: The ICF, canoe/kayak's international governing body, recently selected Deep River, Md., as the site of the 2014 canoe slalom world championships.