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Smokin' Smolen's Breakthrough Year

By Doug Williams | July 02, 2014, 5:06 p.m. (ET)

Michal Smolen competes in the men's K-1 at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup on June 28, 2014 in Prague.

As Michal Smolen sped down the whitewater course, everything was going just as he hoped.

He was making great time in his kayak, swiftly negotiating all the gates on the 400-meter course in the men’s K-1 final of the ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in Prague.

Halfway through his run – after finishing first in the event semifinals – Smolen was on pace to win gold.

“I knew I was ahead and I knew that I was having a near-perfect performance,” he said.

But near the bottom of the 22-gate setup, Smolen hit two of them and when he crossed the finish line all he felt was frustration. The mistakes added time to his run, eliminating his chance at first or second.

Michal Smolen poses with his bronze medal at the ICF Canoe
Slalom World Cup on June 28, 2014 in Prague.

Yet Smolen’s run was good for a bronze medal. And for Smolen, 20, who’s in his third season of racing on the senior international circuit, it was his first world cup medal of any kind.

“Yeah, I mean the feelings (of frustration) kind of got to me a little after my run, because I was kind of dissatisfied when I crossed the finish line,” he said. “Once I got to the podium, I felt a lot better. It was a very proud moment.”

It marked a second highlight for Smolen in what is turning out to be a breakthrough year for the son of 2012 U.S. Olympic slalom team coach Rafal Smolen.

In April, Michal Smolen, from Charlotte, North Carolina, won the Under-23 world championship in Australia. It was a huge win for him, considering how long he’d been pursuing the title. Though he’s only 20, he first stepped into one of his dad’s kayaks at age 10 and he’s been competing since about age 12.

“The biggest reason it was a big thing for me personally was I’ve been chasing this result for, I don’t know, maybe six years now? And I’ve been fourth and I’ve been fifth and last year I didn’t even make it to the final,” he said. “So this year to have the podium, and being first, it changes everything. It’s like I’ve got revenge for all those years before,” he adds, laughing.

Adding the world cup bronze has allowed him to put behind him some disappointing outcomes on the circuit. Now in his third year, he had made just one previous final, in 2012.

At Prague, he wasn’t very good in qualifying, just barely making the semifinals. But then he posted the best time in the semis, earning the last trip down the course in the finals.

“To have that really good result in the end was actually very satisfying, even though it didn’t feel very satisfying when I finished,” he said. “Because I was going for the win and then I got some penalties at the bottom. So in a way I lost the race, but I ended up being on the podium, so it was satisfying.”

Smolen, of course, is hoping he can add a few more highlights to his resume. The 2012 national champion and second-place finisher in the 2012 Olympic Trials will get a shot at the ICF World Championships in September in Maryland, the first time the event has been held in the U.S. in more than 20 years. And, looming in the distance, are the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

In 2012, even if he’d won the Olympic Trials, he wouldn’t have qualified for London because he had yet to become a citizen. He moved to the U.S. at age 10 with his father and mother from Poland, where Rafal had been on the whitewater national team. Michal received his U.S. citizenship last year, so he’s now eligible.

“That’s the main goal for now, but there are some big steps along the way. I mean, I wanted to go to the Olympics in 2012 but I think I would have been a little too young,” he said. “But I’m getting all this experience now before 2016, so when I go to the Olympics, I’ll be kind of prepared for that, the pressure.”

Looking back, he understands he wouldn’t have been prepared mentally to compete at London. With his performances this year after a disappointing 2013, Smolen is now optimistic he can be ready for the Games.

“I know I’m there physically, and I can do it,” he said. “I just need to be able to manage everything else.”

That ability to manage “everything else” is what he credits for his breakthrough.

Last year, he was convinced his results weren’t a reflection of his ability. But time and again he kept coming up short in competitions.

“I realized I really needed to work on my mental skills,” he said. “I needed to improve some things because when I’d go into a race I wasn’t focused. And when things didn’t go my way, I realized I’m not putting enough effort into preparing mentally as I am physically.”

So, he consulted with a sports psychologist from the United States Olympic Committee and read several books over the winter, trying to get clear what he needed for a better mental approach.

“I would worry too much about the outcome, and I think that restrained me,” he said. “Now I’m trying to focus on just having fun and doing stuff in the present, and not worrying about anything else.”

Now that approach, with his recent success, has him excited about his future.

His father, too, sees good things ahead, and he points to Michal’s run to the bronze medal in Prague as evidence.

“Having two penalties and still being on the podium shows just how good of a run it was,” Rafal Smolen told canoekayak.com. “He has the potential to be top three on a regular basis.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.