Michal Smolen competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO – Michal Smolen has no regrets about his Tokyo Olympic experience. He’d just like to do four, maybe five, seconds over.
Smolen finished fifth in canoe slalom men’s kayak Friday after losing critical time on a gate in the latter part of the course.
“You had to drop in a wave and the wave had to push you into the gate,” Smolen said. “The wave pushed me too much upstream, and I was pointing away from the gate instead of pointing in the gate, so I had to wait until it spat me out.”
By that time, his podium hopes were sunk.
And yet Smolen, who was wearing the No. 12 bib, a coincidental reminder of his Rio Olympic Games finish five years ago when he didn’t make the 10-man final, said, “Being fifth in the grand scheme of things is not so bad.
“It is a tremendous improvement and I know I can do better, so I just have to keep chasing it.”
Smolen had a solid semifinal run at the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre, placing third with a time of 96.11 seconds. Then in the final he clocked 99.12 seconds after his misadventure in that one section.
Rio bronze medalist Jiri Prskavec of Czech Republic, paddling last, took the gold with a time of 91.63 seconds, 3.22 seconds ahead of Jakub Grigar of Slovakia. Hannes Aigner of Germany, who won the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, again claimed the bronze with a time of 97.11 seconds while Felix Oschmautz of Austria was only .33 ahead of Smolen.
“I don’t think beating Jiri was easy; I would have had to have a pretty flawless run,” Smolen said, “but without that mistake it would have been enough for podium.”
Smolen, 27, is from Charlotte, North Carolina, but he also has a home in Paris with his girlfriend, a French paddler. In just three years, the Olympic Games will be back in the French capital.
“After this experience, I want to get after it again,” he said. “Fifth place is just not enough, you know! I think living there and training on that course will help for sure.”
After a stretch when Smolen wasn’t having fun in the sport he’s done nearly his whole life, he’s enjoying himself again.
“Without having fun, I wouldn’t have been in the final today,” said Smolen, who won the Pan American Games gold medal and the world championships bronze in 2015. “If I was just focused on putting together solid performances and being really serious, I don’t think that would have been good for me. I think having fun really benefited me here.”
The weather for the semifinal was a sunny 88 degrees at the Kasai centre, a man-made venue constructed for the Games and tucked next to a giant Ferris wheel and beside a busy highway.
By the final, the skies had clouded over. Smolen, whose international ranking is No. 23, said he felt like he was on pace from the starting block.
“I was happy,” he said. I felt like every stroke that I did counted and I was getting good power out of each stroke.”
And Smolen didn’t hold anything back.
“I just went for it,” he said. “I risked a bit more than in the semifinal.”
After Smolen got hung up, he paddled furiously to the finish, then glided into the calm water with a dejected look on his face, his head down.
“My arms were like rocks, and I just had to fight to the bottom,” he said. “I was just happy I crossed the finish line and I could take a breath for a second.”
Smolen’s placement was the top finish for Team USA in canoe slalom, which used to be known as whitewater slalom. The United States has not won an Olympic medal in the sport since Rebecca Giddens won the silver in K-1 in 2004.