You don’t need to look far to find an American frustrated by the gridlock in Congress.
Michal Smolen would seemingly be one of those people.
Born in Poland but raised in North Carolina since he was 10, Smolen emerged in 2011 as one of the United States’ best whitewater kayakers. That year, at age 17, he out-paddled three Olympians to win the U.S. national team trials. The future was bright with the London 2012 Olympic Games fast approaching.
And then the momentum stopped.
Smolen had a permanent resident’s green card but not yet U.S. citizenship. The process for obtaining it would not be complete until after the London Games. Only an act of Congress could expedite his cause.
The teenager, whose father Rafal Smolen was and is a U.S. national team coach, certainly tried.
“Basically we had a congressman who would put a bill especially for me to expedite the whole process,” Michal said. “And unfortunately we were not able to finish that process, and I was just short of getting my citizenship.”
In March 2013, seven months after the 2012 Closing Ceremony, Smolen’s citizenship was granted.
It was an experience that could have left him bitter — and, of course, he was justifiably disappointed. But as Smolen, now 22, heads into this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Canoe/Kayak Slalom as a favorite to make the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games in K1, he looks at the experience differently.
“It was a long shot, honestly,” he said last month at the Team USA Media Summit. “Now when I look at it, it really wasn’t the right time for me to go to the Games.”
That time appears to be now.
In the past four years, Smolen has established himself at the level he broke into in 2011. The 2014 season saw him win an Under-23 world title and his first world cup medal (a bronze). He followed that by winning another U.S. national team trials title, a Pan American Games gold medal and a world championships bronze medal in 2015 — the first in the event by an American in 17 years.
In the Olympic qualification system, Smolen’s world bronze medal gives him a big lead in qualifying points heading into the first round of trials on Friday and Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the second round coming next month in Oklahoma. With a solid performance in Charlotte, Smolen can qualify at the first Trials.
“It’s all coming full circle, all the things that I’ve done, the long road I’ve had,” he said.
As the son of an elite kayak competitor and coach, Michal’s rise in the sports would seem to be preordained. His parents, Rafal and Agnieszka “Aga,” grew up in Poland, where Rafal was on the national team and an alternate at the 1992 and ’96 Olympic Games.
Rafal moved to North Carolina in 2000 to coach the elite Nantahala Racing Club, and he took over as the slalom national development and coaching manager for USA Canoe/Kayak in 2011. He’s been Michal’s only coach in the sport.
But citizenship was only the latest challenge Michal has had to overcome in his young career.
His first experience in a whitewater kayak was so traumatizing that he vowed to never repeat it, instead turning his fear of the rushing water into a competitive swimming career. A few years later, at age 13 and more confident in the water, he decided to try his father’s sport again, and this time it stuck. But soon after, Michal awoke in a hospital room with a terrible headache. He had suffered a seizure in his sleep and was diagnosed with epilepsy.
“When it first started happening, I wasn’t going kayaking much because I was scared and I didn’t want that to cause some problems in my life,” he said.
The seizures occurred with regularity for several years, but mostly at night, so he could still train. But even training had its challenges in working with his dad.
“We have a lot of ups and downs,” Michal said.
Rafal Smolen is a demanding and sometimes blunt coach, and Michal Smolen was, well, his teenage son. Rafal would tell Michal to train one way; then Michal would instead try to mimic what he saw the elite athletes doing.
“It turned out he was right,” Michal admits, “and eventually I figured out how to develop my own style.”
Now older and more understanding of his dad’s approach, Michal has a stronger relationship with Rafal. He’s eager to qualify for the Rio Games in part so his dad can coach him there.
“My dad was just so close (to qualifying for the Olympic Games),” Michal said. “And he gets to see me go to the Games, so it’s really a family issue for us.”
Making the U.S. Olympic Team would also be a patriotic affair for Smolen. During his ordeal with citizenship, one of the options he considered was competing instead for Poland.
“We really had to look at it and decide what that would mean,” Smolen said. “And we decided that it was not a good idea. I didn’t really want to move back to Poland and represent a country that I didn’t grow up in.
“I just wanted to represent the country that represented me.”
If everything goes as planned over these next few weeks, he’ll have an opportunity to do just that in Rio de Janeiro.