It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the keys to success this year for Casey Eichfeld might be to spend less time on the water.
That’s because even after three Olympic Games and more than a decade of top-flight competition, the 27-year-old canoe slalom specialist from Drums, Pennsylvania, never tires of his sport. However, at this point in his career, preserving his endurance is more important than honing his technique. For someone who craves whitewater as much as Eichfeld, that is easier said than done.
“It’s easy for me to over train, because I’m having so much fun,” Eichfeld said. “Even though I’m aware that I’m tired, I don’t want to get off the water, go back to the hotel and sit down. I want to stay on the water where it’s fun and exciting.”
The challenge to maintain the happy medium between the two begins in earnest at the first ICF World Cup event of the year, starting Friday in Prague. He hopes to ride momentum from 2016 into the world cup schedule. Eichfeld placed seventh in single canoe slalom at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and later earned his first career podium in a world cup event by placing third at last year’s final in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He also teamed with Devin McEwan for 10th place in doubles in Rio but is focusing on C1 this year.
Eichfeld has competed in Prague many times, and he said it’s not the size of the water that makes it an intriguing event. Instead, the technical aspects of the Vltava River course and enthusiastic spectators that give Prague its character. Plus, the Czech competitors rarely disappoint.
“These guys know the ins and outs of this course, every last one of them,” Eichfeld said. “It’s so regular for us to see a Czech paddler on the podium. We’ve had a couple seasons where there has been a complete Czech sweep, and they take all of the podium spots for one class. So they are going to be unbelievably strong, and when their home crowd gets cheering, they are moving."
To tune up for the world cup schedule, Eichfeld got some work in last week at Pau, France, where this year’s world championships will be contested in September. Since the European championships had just been held in Pau the previous weekend, Eichfeld said he and his group had the run of the course.
“Pretty much nobody showed up for this training block,” Eichfeld said. “We had the water pretty much all to ourselves, which was amazing. We had like five or six people on water at a time — and we’re used to blocks where there are a minimum of 22 people on the water at a time.”
For Eichfeld, the very nature of the slalom discipline keeps him engaged both mentally and physically. Stamina workouts on flat water can definitely become tedious, but he can’t imagine riding the rapids ever becoming drudgery.
“We compete on a field that is constantly changing,” Eichfeld said. “Whitewater is a living creature all unto itself. We paddle on it as much as we can so we can build a sort of mental encyclopedia and have as much experience. … But there is no piece of water that is the same as another piece of water anywhere else in the world. It all changes. It’s all doing different things. That’s what I love about this sport. There are no certainties.”
Eichfeld said it’s that mental encyclopedia and ability to focus effectively that separates good competitors from great ones in the slalom discipline. After all, everyone at the international level possesses skill and experience in abundance.
“At this level, it often comes down to who has the clearer head that day,” Eichfeld said. “We’re all very fit. We’re all technically adept. It’s going to come down to who can react the best. You’re always making little tweaks throughout the course, and sometimes you have to make major changes to your plan.”
It all means Eichfeld will do his best to find the sweet spot in terms of preparation. He must practice enough to keep his reactions sharp, but not so much that his focus isn’t sharp. If he has any doubt, perhaps he should err on the side of caution.
It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes less is more.
“This isn’t the time to be training,” Eichfeld said. “This is the time to put everything you did in your training into effect.”
Thomas Neumann is a Florida-based writer and journalist who previously worked at ESPN and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.