Rather than chasing gold, silver or bronze at the last Olympics, Michal Smolen decided he’d rather wait for the red, white and blue.
Born in Poland but living in the United States, the kayaker could’ve gone back to his native country for a chance to compete under its flag in London.
Not worth it, he decided.
In a rent-a-jock world that barely blinks when athletes change citizenship to compete for countries where they’ve barely stepped foot, Smolen is an exception — someone who intentionally took the longer road to his Olympic starting line. There’s no irony lost in that Smolen, whose first name is pronounced MEE-how, will be competing mere months before a presidential election in which a debate has raged over what, exactly, it means to be an American and who should be able to live inside the country’s borders.
“I get a little frustrated watching the whole thing,” Smolen said.
Now 22, Smolen lives in Gastonia, North Carolina, and is considered a potential medalist in singles slalom kayaking, which would be a first for his adopted country.
His father, Rafal, was an elite kayaker in Poland, whose own Olympic dream was stymied in part by politics inside that country’s sports system in 1992, shortly after the breakdown of Communism in the Eastern bloc. Smolen had the lead after a set of two qualifying races for the Barcelona Games, but unexpectedly, the Polish kayaking federation decided to add another race.
“A lot of things were decided not by coaches but by the president of the federation,” said Rafal Smolen, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team. “Things like that don’t happen in the United States.”
Lured by a coaching opportunity in North Carolina and the prospect of training athletes in what he viewed as a much more equitable system, Rafal Smolen moved to the United States in 1999. At the time, his wife, Aga, was a professional team handball player and Michal was nowhere near following in his dad’s footsteps. He was afraid of water.
“I was scared of doing anything as a young child,” Michal said. “When it came to kayaking, I was scared of drowning. Scared of flipping over and not being able to get out. I had to learn how to swim.”
The learning began in earnest after Michal and his mother joined Rafal in the States in 2003.
After a rough transition, mostly involving learning English, Michal fit in; he was on the student council by the second year of his stay in North Carolina. Not too long afterward, he was overcoming his fears of the water and making kayaking part of his everyday routine.
By the age of 12, Rafal said, “He did everything himself.”
“Michal organized his own training, his friends picked him up from home and drove him to workouts,” Rafal said of his son’s experience during one stretch when he was on the road coaching. “He was still physically weak, but he wasn’t scared anymore.”
By 2008, Michal was competing in junior world championships.
By 2010, he was finishing fourth in those world championships.
In 2011, he won the U.S. Olympic trials.
Shortly after that, he turned 18 and applied for his U.S. citizenship. It’s a process that can take up to two years, and with no shortcuts available to him, Michal and his father debated competing for Poland in 2012.
“We saw a lot of cons in the end, and didn’t really see that many pros,” Michal said. “I had a connection with the sport in the U.S. and I’d be breaking that bond. I’d be floating around to another country. My dad didn’t like that idea. And even though I wanted to go to the Games, I realized that the U.S. is home and I needed to represent the U.S.”
So, while the London Games were going on, Smolen watched on TV.
It wasn’t all that hard, he said, in part because he was watching his friends compete, and in part because he was still inexperienced and knew the London Olympics would have been more of a practice round for him.
“I kept telling him, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll be going to Rio,'” said Aaron Mann, a former teammate of Smolen’s who now works as director of communications for USA Canoe/Kayak.
He’ll have a chance to be a star in Brazil. Smolen’s results have been on a steady upward trajectory: from 39th to 13th to third over the last three world championships. The bronze last year was America’s first worlds kayaking medal in 16 years.
If he wins a medal in Rio, it would add to his own, growing trophy case, along with putting Team USA in the mix in a sport where it has long been an also-ran.
But it would mean more than that.
On an afternoon his father called “pretty emotional,” Smolen was sworn in as a citizen in March 2013. At the ceremony, he wore his Team USA shirt. He was called to the stage to lead the group of new citizens in the Pledge of Allegiance. Many of the newcomers took pictures with the potential Olympian and he signed a few autographs.
They were all coming to America.
Now, Smolen is going to the Olympics.