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Wunderkind Kayaker Must Wait For Next Olympics

Tanner Latham
Michal says he finds his zone when he's on the water. Photo: Tanner Latham

The U.S. Olympic Trials for kayak and canoe are taking place out at the Whitewater Center today and tomorrow. It's one of two qualifying events, and those who earn the most points at the events make the Olympic team. But one of the best kayakers on the U.S. national team this weekend doesn't have a shot at competing in London this summer. 

Michal Smolen has a baby face. He's 18, but you'd probably clock him at 15, or even younger. He's a skinny 5' foot 11". 145 pounds. He likes to make silly jokes, even when he's describing the course at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. "And down there, that whole area is called Big Drop," he says. "Because it's big." But then he steps into his kayak, slips his waterproof skirt around the lip, and he's all business. Game face and everything.

Michal is one of the top slalom kayakers on the U.S. National Team right now. In 2010, he placed fourth in the Junior World Kayaking Championships. And last year, at the U.S. team trials, he was first in the senior men's division, out-paddling three other Olympians. William Irving is National Teams Director for U.S. Canoe and Kayak, and he says Michal has great promise in the sport. "For him to be able to beat those guys definitely showed his level of competitiveness just knowing that he could potentially even make our Olympic team," says Irving.

But Michal won't be eligible to compete for the U.S. at the Olympics, because he is a Polish citizen. His father, Rafal, came to North Carolina from Poland in 1999. He became a kayak coach at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Western North Carolina. Michal and his mother joined him in 2003. The family moved to Gastonia in 2007. Last spring, Rafal was hired as a coach for the U.S. Canoe and Kayak team and works out of the Whitewater Center. Last fall, Michal enrolled as a freshman at Queens University. But he can't apply for U.S. citizenship until November, four months after the Olympic Games.

Rafal says they have lobbied congressmen, including Representative Heath Shuler, because the only way to get Michal's citizenship expedited is through a congressional bill.  

"But that takes time, and with the situation the country is in right now and all the issues that congress has to deal with at this time, it's very difficult to push any kind of issues like that through," says Rafal.

Michal's disappointed. And trying out for the Polish team isn't an option either, because that slot has already been filled. But he's bounced right back. He's got a positive perspective. His sights are high.

"I can definitely get better over the next four years," says Michal. "Especially having the goal of going to Rio in my head."

Rafal says his son has the perfect build to be a kayaker. He's light, and he's strong. And he's good about continuing the course, even when he has setbacks. Michal says that's all about being centered. "I definitely get in the zone when I'm on the water," says Michal. "It helps me put everything out of my head and focus on what's in front of me."

If Michal places in the top three this weekend, he'll retain his spot on the U.S. National team and be eligible to compete in kayak's World Cup events later this year. He doesn't have to be a U.S. citizen for those.