All eyes were on US racers at the 2021 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup in Prague, Czech Republic, on June 11–13, as berths at the Big Show in Tokyo were on the line.
In the end, three paddlers earned the coveted USA spots in the upcoming Olympics: Zach “Bug” Lokken in Men’s C-1, Michal Smolen in Men’s K-1, and youngster Evy Leibfarth, who, at just age 17, will be representing the U.S. in both Women’s K-1 and the new Women’s C-1 event.
At the final Olympic selection race ahead of the Tokyo Games, on day one five U.S. athletes progressed to the semifinals, including Leibfarth, who advanced in both kayak and canoe events; Rio Olympian Smolen and Joshua Joseph in kayak; and Zach Lokken and Casey Eichfield in C-1. In the end Leibfarth, Smolen and Lokken would earn the ticket to the Big Show.
Selection in the Games is based on a points system – the higher an athlete finishes, the more points he or she receives. The athlete with the most points earns the spot to compete at the Olympics in their respective event.
USA sensation Leibfarth finished 19th after her first run. “I was really happy with my paddling today,” she said after Day One. “I was being a bit more conservative during this run, but in my next one I’m planning to get really aggressive and attack.”
Later, racing in the semifinal of the WK-1, she pushed it and had a few more gate touches than normal, not progressing to the final. She missed the final in the WC-1 also, but still earned her berth in that event as well to represent the USA in Tokyo.
“I think I had some good paddling out there,” she said. “The top part of my run felt good, but the bottom got a little messy – not my best paddling but I’m still pretty happy with my run.”
In men’s kayak, on Day Two of World Cup Prague, Smolen officially secured his ticket to Tokyo in the Men’s K-1 Olympic spot; following a great run in the semifinal, he finished in 10th place ahead of Joshua Joseph, guaranteeing him the Olympic spot.
Smolen went on to finish 5th in the final against some of the toughest international competition in slalom kayaking. Overall, he feels positive about his performance in Prague and looks forward to his second Olympic Games.
“Today went pretty well considering how much pressure there was,” he said. “I’m happy it’s over now because it has been a long road to Tokyo. I’m excited to go to my second Olympics and will take my experience from Rio to try and get a better result in Tokyo. Now all I have left is to train hard and finish my last bit of preparation.”
The third and final day of competition punched Zach (Bug) Lokken’s ticket to Tokyo in Men’s C-1. Lokken finished second in the semifinal ahead of Casey Eichfeld, granting him the final edge he needed to earn the right to compete at the Games for Team USA.
“I stuck to my plan and did everything well except for a mistake at the bottom that I was able to fix. I made the final which I was aiming for, but the Olympics was my ultimate goal. I’m so happy about it,” Lokken said.
Lokken finished 8th in the MC-1 final with 7.63 seconds of added penalties.
Overall, World Cup Prague was a success for Team USA, punching two tickets to Tokyo for Smolen in MK-1 and Lokken in MC-1 (with young sensation Leibfarth already earning her spot).
Olympic Spotlight: Evy Leibfarth
Hometown: Bryson City, NC
Age: 17 years old
Events: Will represent the US in Tokyo this summer in the WK-1 and WC-1 events and will be among the youngest athletes competing at the Games
Past Results: 2019 Pan American champion in WK-1; Finished 4th at her first senior world championship in 2019 in WC-1 to secure an Olympic quota for the US.