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Why Charlotte's Whitewater Center Attracts Olympic Hopefuls Here

David Boraks
A kayaker makes a run down the course at the U.S. National Whitewater Center earlier this month.

The nation’s top athletes in canoe and kayak slalom are in Charlotte Friday and Saturday competing to represent the U.S. at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. They include two paddlers who moved to Charlotte to be near the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where the trials are being held.

Michal Smolen and Casey Eichfeld are exactly the kind of athletes founders were hoping to attract when they built the U.S. National Whitewater Center near the Catawba River a decade ago.

Smolen was born in Poland and his dad, Rafal, is a U.S. team coach. The family originally moved to western North Carolina, for its whitewater rivers. When he was 10, they moved to Gastonia.

“When the Whitewater Center opened, we moved,” Smolen said at the Whitewater Center the other day.

Former U.S. Olympic coach Bill Endicott says world-class slalom kayakers like Smolen need a modern, year-round training site like this one. Europe has many, he said, the U.S. just a handful.

“It used to be the sport was contested on natural rivers, and world championships were on those. But then the Olympic standard has come to be artificial courses. And they’re different from regular rivers.

He said man-made channels are narrower, there’s more continuous whitewater, and it surges in ways a natural river doesn’t.  

“All of those things mean that you have to train on artificial courses if you want to do well in world championships or Olympics,” Endicott said.

Canoe and kayak slalom is similar to downhill ski slalom. As they paddle down the rushing stream, competitors have to navigate a series of gates - poles hanging from an overhead wire. Some they enter while heading downstream, others they must paddle back upstream to reach. The course is several hundred meters long, and takes about a minute and a half. 

Smolen grew up in the sport at the Whitewater Center. Now 23, he’s one of the top U.S. kayakers.

“It really helped me make that transition from a young athlete to a more mature athlete. I did a lot of training here … It definitely shaped me as a young athlete,” he said.

Smolen qualified for the 2012 London Olympics, but couldn’t obtain U.S. citizenship in time. He got that in 2013. Now, after finishing third in the world championships last fall in London, he’s on his way to making the team for Rio. All he needs is a top three finish this weekend, or at a second round of trials next month in Oklahoma City.  

Casey Eichfeld is another top U.S. paddler with a good shot at making the Olympics. He moved to Charlotte from Pennsylvania in 2007.

“Up in Pennsylvania, we have plenty of natural rivers. Unfortunately, none of them are quite up to the elite standard that has become necessary at this point for training in order for me to be competitive with the best in the world,” Eichfeld said.

The 26-year-old canoe slalom specialist lives on the riverfront in Mount Holly, across from the Whitewater Center.

“To be able to paddle to work in 15 minutes instead of jumping in the car for a 30-minute commute is definitely an added bonus,” he said.

The center is about 11 miles west of uptown Charlotte. When it first opened, financial troubles made headlines. Those are a thing of the past. The park now not only hosts big events like the trials but also draws daily visitors – now 1 million a year. They come for hiking and biking, climbing, zip lines and a restaurant and beer garden.

These are the third Olympic trials since the center opened in 2006. More than 10,000 people are expected Friday and Saturday for the competition as well as live music and fireworks, spokesman Eric Osterhus said.

“It’s a busy weekend for us, having a piece of the Olympic movement right here in Charlotte, folks are drawn to that .. you know they’re drawn to the rings, they wanna see the competition,” he said.

The first kayak and canoe runs begin just after noon on Friday, and at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Live music begins at 6 p.m. Saturday, with fireworks at 9:30.


Details on the weekend’s events are at USNWC.org

Preview of the Olympic Trials competition, at TeamUSA.org 

Team USA page for Casey Eichfeld - http://www.teamusa.org/usa-canoe-kayak/athletes/casey-eichfeld

Team USA page for Michal Smolen -  http://www.teamusa.org/usa-canoe-kayak/athletes/Michal-Smolen

March 28, 2014, WFAE.org, “Seven Years Later, A 'Successful' Whitewater Center (With Taxpayer Help)” - WFAE reporter Michael Tomsic's feature on the center's turnaround.