Michal Smolen used to be afraid of the water.
His father, Rafal Smolen, was a slalom kayaker for the Polish national team and moved to western North Carolina to coach at the Nantahala Racing Club. Michal came from Poland to visit one summer when he was 9 years old.
That’s when he kayaked for the first time.
“I got in the boat and was afraid to get out in the current,” he said. “I was just kind of hanging onto a rock. It was a kind of scary experience.”
He and his mother moved to Sylva soon after to join Rafal. Michal joined a swim team. He became more comfortable with the water and, when he was 13, tried kayaking again.
That experience was better.
After starting to compete in the sport five years ago, Smolen, 18, progressed quickly and the Queens University of Charlotte freshman is now a member of the U.S. National Slalom Kayaking team and one of the best slalom kayakers in the country.
Slalom kayaking involves a single kayaker traversing a natural or man made river and going through 20-25 gates on the way to the finish line. Kayakers go downstream through the green gates but must turn around and go upstream, against the current, through the red gates. Smolen said the average run takes about 90 seconds.
Rafal, who is now the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom National Development and Coaching Manager, has been coaching Michal since he first showed interest in the sport. Michal said his father may be tougher on him in workouts than other kayakers, but he thinks it makes him better. The two have worked hard to find a balance between their coach/athlete relationship and their father/son relationship.
“At the beginning was much harder than it is right now,” said Rafal. “We’ve worked out a relationship that is fairly balanced.”
Rafal said Michal’s small body type – he is 5-foot-11 and 140 pounds – and determination is what has helped him succeed.
“I think it’s the discipline first,” said Rafal. “I think that a lot of kids kind of take (kayaking) as a way to play and then have fun. I think he was a little more determined. He was a little behind at the beginning so he had to catch up.”
Rafal said he has enjoyed watching his son succeed in a sport that has been a part of his life since Rafal was young.
“It’s very exciting for a parent, you know, as well as a coach,” said Rafal. “Having him achieving that level at such a young age, it’s very exciting because we can get pretty high up there and be very competitive internationally.”
Michal is a three-time U.S. Junior National Champion and three-time U.S. Junior National Team member. He said a turning point in his career was in 2009, when he ramped up his training to prepare for the 2010 Junior World Championships in France.
“That was a big goal for me,” he said. “I started training more and started putting that focus into my training more and I think that really got me into the core of kayaking.”
He finished fourth at the 2010 Junior World Championships and made the senior U.S. National Team last year after finishing first in the three-day team trials. He also finished third at the 2012 U.S. Open on the Nantahala River in March.
Michal, who moved to Gastonia in 2007 and graduated from Ashbrook High School, trains everyday at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Each morning, he wakes up early and goes to the gym, working on the core and shoulder strength that is so important. Then he has two workouts a day on the water.
Smolen said he loves the feeling of being on the water.
“After I stopped swimming and got into kayaking, nothing else really interested me,” he said. “I got narrow-minded about kayaking and wanted to do it every day.”
He is studying pre-med at Queens and took a full course load last semester in addition to training. He wants to finish college in four or five years, but took this semester off to train for the U.S. Olympic team trials April 12-14 at the Whitewater Center. He would love to compete for the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics, but there’s a chance that even if he makes the team, he won’t be able to compete.
Michal can’t apply for full citizenship until September, after the Olympics. He’s trying to expedite the process, but it hasn’t gone through. Last year, he considered competing for Poland in the Olympics, but decided he would rather kayak for the U.S.
“I started here and I’ve done it here since the very beginning,” he said. “I’ve worked with all the U.S. guys and it just makes sense. I think it would mean more for me to race for the U.S. than it would mean for me to race for Poland.”
With all his accolades, Michal has many proud moments in his career. But when asked about the best feeling he’s had on the water, he didn’t talk about winning a race or a championship.
“There are moments on the water where I feel very satisfied, mostly about workouts,” he said. “When I have those workouts where it’s just complete focus and I’m able to do everything I want and I am able to learn from what I did and finish the workout with a smile on my face, that’s something that I don’t take for granted.”