Michal Smolen competes in the kayak (K1) men's semifinal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Whitewater Stadium on Aug. 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Michal Smolen sat in his kayak at the bottom of the Olympic whitewater slalom course watching his competitors navigate the gates on the video scoreboard.
One by one they finished, and Smolen saw his name drop down the list of qualifiers for the men’s K1 final. Smolen was trying to become the first U.S. man to win an Olympic medal in slalom men’s kayak.
“I felt like someone was reaching into my chest and just squeezing me,” he said. “This has been my dream and I’ve been working for this for about six years now. And the fact that I came here today and I wasn’t able to pull it off. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I’m not going to get over it right away.”
Smolen’s voice broke. “It’s going to take me some time. But I’m not going to stop.”
He finished 12th out of 15 in the semifinal and needed to be in the top-10 to reach the final. If not for two touches that added 4 seconds and gave him a time of 97.87 seconds, Smolen would have finished eighth in the semi.
“It’s something a lot of athletes face, and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to face that, but that’s the reality,” Smolen said. “That’s how it goes in sports. You’re not always a winner. You don’t always make it to the next round. And it takes time to figure out how to deal with it.”
The gates are called ups and downs, and that certainly applies to Smolen’s journey to Rio.
Born in Poland, he has lived in the United States since he was 10 years old. Before the London 2012 Games, Smolen was a contender to make Team USA as a teenager. But while he had no trouble navigating the red gates – which signify an upstream maneuver – he was snarled in red tape applying for citizenship.
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Smolen became a U.S. citizen in 2013 and won the bronze at the 2015 world championships for the first U.S. medal in that event since 1999.
That made him a favorite coming into Rio, and brought pressure and expectations.
“I was really nervous,” Smolen said. “Honestly, it was a more immature style of paddling today, like I wasn’t feeling like myself. I didn’t really pay attention to the gates as much as I should have.
“It’s just bad luck.”
He said his father Rafal, his coach who was a member of the Polish national team, told him before the race, “Have fun.”
“Doesn’t always work,” Smolen said. “He’s told me that before. It just depends how the day goes.”
Soon after starting his run Wednesday, he hit the No. 4 gate. Smolen could not only hear it, he could see the judges mark it as a touch.
“I knew I had to pick up some time on the course, which I did,” Smolen said. “I risked a little bit more than I wanted to on some of the ups, so I think I would have been fine if I had just held myself together at the end.”
But he hit the last gate, No. 24.
“I have to reset now, focus on what I have to do next,” Smolen said. “I know I’m going to go for at least one more Games, so there’s that at least.
“This is my life; I’m not going to do anything else. I wanted a medal. That was the goal and I didn’t reach that, so I have four more years, maybe eight more years to reach that goal and honestly I’m not going to stop until I get it. I had a goal of being on the podium in the worlds – I got that, so I know I can do it. I’ve just got to forget about this and let it propel me forward from now on.”
Rafal Smolen gave his son a long hug after the race.
“Everybody’s nervous,” Rafal said. “It’s just the natural state. Of course, for him, it was one of the biggest events, if not the biggest event in his career. With all the stuff happening before last time when he was still a kid before 2012 and not being able to compete for the Olympic team, and then all those emotions at that time and coming here and being a contender, there was a lot of pressure on him.
“I think that he still handled himself quite well. Just the little decided the end. That’s the sport. That’s the beauty of it, but also the brutality of it as well.”
Had Michal competed in London, he might have gotten the first-time Olympian jitters out of his system four years ago.
“There’s a million different scenarios I could think of right now,” Michal Smolen said. “You never know. I could be as prepared as I could ever be, I could go three Olympic Games and go to my fourth one and still not be prepared. You really just have to make sure you’re on it that day. You have to be able to calm yourself down and deal with the nerves. And I’m going to work on that now.
“Even today is a good warmup for Tokyo, honestly. Now when I go for my next Olympics, if I have the chance, I’ll know what it’s like and I’ll know what to expect and that’s a huge deal. A lot of athletes who go into their first Games get overwhelmed. Maybe that’s what happened to me, maybe not. But at least I know now what to expect and how to deal with it better next time.”