Michal Smolen Wins Olympic Berth In Men’s Kayak, Could Become Team USA’s First Medalist

By Craig Bohnert | April 09, 2016, 6:12 p.m. (ET)


After the disappointment of a near miss in 2012 due to circumstances beyond control, Michal Smolen seized his destiny and qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympic Team in whitewater slalom men’s single kayak Saturday evening.

Smolen needed only a top-three finish at the first leg of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Canoe/Kayak Slalom, held this weekend at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He won the event and, combined with the bronze medal he won at the 2015 world championships, has compiled enough points to qualify for Rio prior to the second leg of the Olympic Trials, to be held May 6-7 in Oklahoma City.

The decisiveness of his earning a trip to Rio was in sharp contrast to the uncertainty that plagued his candidacy for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Having emigrated from Poland to the United States when he was 10 years old, he held a permanent green card but lacked U.S. citizenship when he won the Olympic Team Trials. The only hope to secure his citizenship in time to compete in London was, quite literally, an act of Congress. Congress did not deliver his citizenship until seven months after the Olympic flame was extinguished in London.

Looking back at the experience, Smolen frames it with a maturity that belies his 22 years.

“It was a long shot, honestly,” he said at the Team USA Media Summit last month. “Now when I look at it, it really wasn’t the right time for me to go to the Games.”

That time is now, and Smolen will be accompanied by the only coach he’s ever known in the sport: his father, Rafal, who was an alternate in whitewater slalom for the Polish team at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games.

Rafal brought his family to the United States after accepting a coaching position with the elite Nantahala Racing Club in 2000. In 2011 he became USA Canoe/Kayak’s slalom national development and coaching manager, and in that role will be the coach of the Olympic team in Rio.

The promise the younger Smolen flashed at 17, when he defeated three Olympians to win the 2011 national championship, has blossomed into results in the quadrennium leading to Rio. Benchmark results include the Under-23 world championship in 2014, as well as a world cup bronze medal the same year, and gold at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games accompanied by the world championship bronze medal that boosted him in his quest to qualify for the trip to Brazil. That bronze was the first worlds medal by an American in men’s kayak since Scott Shipley won the third of his three worlds silver medals in 1999.

Of the five Olympic medals won by the United States in whitewater slalom, none have been in men’s kayak. With is father by his side to guide him, Smolen hopes to change that fact in Rio in August.