Eleven canoe/kayak athletes are representing Team USA at the Pan American Games in the slalom and sprint events. Of the 11, seven have Pan American experience and all have international competition experience. The Pan Am Games provide the first opportunity for canoe slalom athletes to earn quota spots for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Toronto 2015 will be the first Pan Am Games to include slalom, which was initially introduced as an Olympic event at the Munich 1972 Games.
“The event will be quite different than the Pan American Championships that our athletes are used to,” said U.S. National Slalom Team coach Rafal Smolen. “It will also give them some taste of how things work around the Olympics since only one of the Pan American slalom team athletes has a previous Olympic experience.”
The slalom races will take place July 18-19 at Minden Wild Water Preserve. Athletes navigate their canoe or kayak through gates down 300 meters of river rapids, attempting to make it through all the gates and end with the fastest time. Penalties are assessed for either hitting or missing gates.
Team USA will be represented by 2014 U-23 world champion Michal Smolen in K1, Ashley Nee in K1, 2008 and 2012 Olympian Casey Eichfeld in C1, Colleen Hickey in C1, and Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan in C2.
While slalom athletes cannot individually qualify for the Olympics at the Pan Am Games, each country will be able to earn up to two of a possible four quota spots. The winning athlete in each event will be eligible for a quota spot for their country. The only other Olympic qualifying event is the 2015 Canoe Slalom World Championships from Sept. 16-20 in Lee Valley, London.
“I want to win,” said Michal Smolen. “Pan Am Games are a little bit smaller than a world cup, so the competition isn’t as stiff. Pan Am Games are a great opportunity for us to get two boats in the Olympics before going into worlds.”
On the sprint side of the action, athletes will compete from July 11-14 at the Welland Pan Am Flatwater Centre. Competitors will battle in kayak and canoe over 200-, 500- and 1,000-meter distances on flat water.
Tim Hornsby, a 2012 Olympian, will represent Team USA in the K1 200. The reigning Pan Am gold medalists in the K2 500, Chris Miller and Stanton Collins, will look to defend their title.
Representing the women’s team, Kaitlyn McElroy will race the K1 200, Maggie Hogan in the K1 500, and Hogan and McElroy in the K2 500. In her Pan Am debut, Lydia Keefe Sampson will race the C1 200.
Sampson will not only be participating in her first Pan Am Games, she will also be participating in the first ever women’s Pan Am canoe competition. After climbing her way up to the top of the junior ranks, the Pan Am Games will serve as a large stepping stone toward potentially realizing her Olympic dreams, as women’s canoe is not yet an Olympic sport.
The final Olympic qualifying event for canoe and kayak sprint is the 2015 ICF Canoe World Championships in late August.
“Ideally we would win or be second to a Brazilian athlete at all the Olympic classes in Toronto and then hope to qualify the other athlete quota at 2015 worlds,” said coach Smolen. “Since Pan American Games are held before the world championships we will have to wait until after the worlds to know what classes qualified athlete quotas in Toronto.”
Additional boats will be competing in the Pan Am races, as they double as the continental Olympic qualifiers, which allow more than one boat per country. The additional boats will be eligible for Olympic quotas, but not Pan Am medals.
Nicole Chrzanowski is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.