By Doug Williams | April 07, 2016, 1:39 p.m. (ET)

It’s been a while since the United States won an Olympic medal in canoe/kayak whitewater slalom, but there’s reason for optimism in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

Silvan Poberaj, the coach for the U.S. canoe/kayak slalom team, believes the athletes headed into the first stage of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Friday and Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, form a strong group with the potential for excellence.

Casey Eichfeld competes in the men's C1 slalom at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Lee Valley White Water Centre on July 29, 2012 in London.

If things break right at this first stage, and the second stage May 6-7 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the American paddlers may be primed to pick up their first Olympic medal since Rebecca Giddens took silver in the women’s K1 (single kayak) at Athens in 2004. Team USA did not win a medal at either Beijing in 2008 or London in 2012.

“In the K1 (men’s) class we have Michal Smolen, who has in recent years better results than we have had for a long time,” said Poberaj, the team’s head coach in London and a coach with the U.S. program since 1994. “So comparing to London and Beijing, I think if everything goes right we should be in a better situation.”

Smolen, 22, ranks as Team USA’s best medal hope, and he’s coming off a terrific 2015 in which he won a bronze medal at the world championships, a Pan American Games gold medal and a U.S. championship. In 2014 he was an Under-23 world champion and took a bronze in a world cup event in the Czech Republic. Plus, by finishing third at the most recent world championships, Smolen locked up a spot for Team USA in the Games in his class.

But Smolen won’t be the only paddler to watch this weekend at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Casey Eichfeld in men’s single canoe was fourth at the world championships in 2015, cementing a men’s C1 berth at the Games. At 26, he’s experienced, having competed at the 2008 Games (11th in C2, doubles canoe) and the 2012 Games (14th in C1).

“He competed already in London and now, four years later, he is in better shape,” Poberaj said. “Last year, last two years, he had some really good international results. In these two classes (C1 and K1) I believe we are in better position than four years ago or eight years ago.”

Going into the two stages of trials, the men’s C1 and K1 are the only two classes in which athletes will be competing for a guaranteed quota spot in the Rio Games, but Team USA can still receive positions for the women’s K1 and men’s C2 classes. Paddlers in those classes will compete at this weekend’s trials hoping to earn the top U.S. position, pending confirmation of U.S. quota spots later this spring.

Everything You Need To Know About Olympic Trials

Michal Smolen competes in the men's K1 final at Lee Valley White Water Centre on Sept. 20, 2015 in London.

Classes: Competition will be held in five classes, men’s C1 and C2, men’s K1, women’s K1 and women’s C1. Women’s C1 is a non-Olympic event, however, it has been proposed for the 2020 Olympic Games. Nations may qualify only one athlete per class, maximum, for the Games.

Format: Paddlers in each class will make two runs on the artificial whitewater course on both Friday and Saturday, with their best score on Friday combined with their best on Saturday to determine their standing. This will be the same format used at the second stage of the trials in Oklahoma City.

The Course: Paddlers will run the course, which should take about 90 to 100 seconds to complete for the fastest class (K1), while negotiating the 18 to 25 gates. They will be penalized two seconds for touching a gate and lose 50 seconds for missing a gate.

K1 Men: Smolen has the easiest route to the Games in the trials based on his world championships result. He needs only to finish third or better at either stage of the trials to win a spot on the team. Since 2011, Smolen has not finished outside the top three at senior national trials.

K1 Women: Dana Mann, Ashley Nee and Anna-Maria Ifarraguerri are the top three in this class. Mann, who had some strong results in 2013 (including fifth at the world championships), was injured in 2014 and took time off to have a baby in 2015, but is now coming on strong. Nee won bronze at last year’s Pan Am Games.

C1 Men: Eichfeld also is in good position to qualify, needing to finish second or better at either trials. Zach Lokken, Smolen’s C2 partner who was third in the C1 national team trials in 2015, ranks as the next strongest candidate in the class.

C2 Men: Eichfeld and Devin McEwan won the Pan Am Games C2 in 2015. Smolen and Lokken also are in the running.

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 since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.