American slalom canoeist Casey Eichfeld seeks first Olympic podium on record fourth try

FILE - Casey Eichfeld of the United States competes during the canoe single C1 men's heats of the Canoe Slalom at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. The 34-year-old Eichfeld is going to his fourth Olympics after competing in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

Three years ago, Casey Eichfeld pondered retirement.

The American slalom canoeist competed at the Summer Olympics in 2008, 2012 and 2016. After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Games in 2021, doubt crept in.

“This far into my career, I’m missing an Olympics,” he recalled. “It definitely makes you wonder if that’s it for you. Is it time to be done? Is it time to move on?”

He stuck with it, and now he has qualified for the Paris Olympics in canoe singles. At age 34, he’s the first American to qualify for four Olympics in slalom.

“To be able to make the Olympic team again just kind of proves to me that that’s just a state of mind,” he said. “When I’m ready to be done, I’ll be done. But for now, you know, I’ve got a lot of fire left and a lot of love for the sport.”

Eichfeld made his Olympic debut as an 18-year-old at the 2008 Beijing Games. He won gold at the Pan American Games in canoe singles and canoe doubles in 2015 and has three World Cup podiums in his career.

That level of success has not carried over to the Olympic stage. His best finish at the Games was seventh in canoe singles in 2016.

Experience could work in Eichfeld's favor, as others have succeeded at his age. Slovenia's Benjamin Savsek won canoe singles gold in Tokyo at age 34 and will be back to try again. France's Tony Estanguet won his third canoe singles gold medal in 2012 before retiring later that year.

The United States has not won an Olympic gold medal in canoe slalom since the 1992 Games in Barcelona, when Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh teamed for a canoe doubles victory. The last American Olympic slalom medalist, male or female, was Rebecca Giddens. She earned silver in kayak singles at the 2004 Games in Athens.

Eichfeld thinks he might be the one to change things. He had a good performance in the Olympic Trials in Oklahoma City in April, allowing him to defeat Zachary Lokken to earn the spot.

“My last run at team trials in Oklahoma City was one of those really good days where I think that fighting for the podium is absolutely an option and a possibility,” he said.

USA slalom coach Rafal Smolen agrees. He said Eichfeld's conditioning is strong and his experience gives him a chance.

“I think potential is there," Smolen said "He just needs to get his stuff in order on the race day and then do it. Like, definitely potentially there for definitely final and potentially medal performance.”

Eichfeld embraced the challenge in Oklahoma City, where he had to make his final push in stormy conditions.

“When the pressure rises and there are more things to focus on, it almost makes it easier for me to zone in and kind of find that flow state a bit more efficiently," he said.

Lokken, 30, earned the Olympic spot in canoe singles in 2021 and finished seventh. He also is a former Pan American Games gold medalist in canoe singles.

Smolen has coached Eichfeld and Lokken for more than 15 years and said Lokken has been a key to Eichfeld’s success. Lokken was ahead through most of the qualifying process for the Paris Games until the end, when Eichfeld passed him up at the trials in Oklahoma City.

“It’s been between these two guys for quite some time, and they’ve been pushing each other," Smolen said. "And I think that is helping to maintain a high level, and it’s helping them to be motivated to work harder than the other one.”

Regardless of how things turn out in Paris, Eichfeld said he’ll be fine. He has a daughter, 2-year-old Emilia, and his wife, Sarah, to focus on when the Olympics are over.

“I get a better perspective now,” he said. “Racing’s a little different now because it’s not my everything. It’s not make or break.”


AP Olympics