This is my story...
 

Every athlete has a story. It starts the first day they step out on the court and toss the ball. Some remember this moment vividly and some just consider it as the simple start of their career. For me that moment was very powerful and it happened when I first got in the boat and took my first strokes. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. That is mainly because I was very young and afraid of being alone in the water. Unfortunately, that's what it took to be a kayaker. I was so scared the first time that I couldn't even move. I thought that I had no chance against the river that faced me. This made me very upset because I always wanted to try this sport as my father had done it for most of his life. It's not that I felt pressured, I just wanted to show him that I can do it. Then, after I realized that I was too scared to even paddle five feet into the current I was filled with disappointment. This was just the first and considerably small obstacle that I faced at the time with a long road of challenges ahead of me.

Soon after my first experience with kayaking, I told myself that I would never try it again because of my strong fear of the water. Funny enough, the next sport I tried soon after was swimming. I was still scared but at least swimming made me feel as if I had more control in the water. So I started swimming every day. I became more comfortable in the water and with a competitive group of swimmers, I was easily motivated to get better. I started learning discipline and training became a normal part of my daily childhood routine. At some point, however, I realized that swimming wasn't for me as it no longer brought me the same enjoyment. I needed to participate in a sport which was more exciting and extreme. This is when, at the age of 13, I decided to give kayaking another shot. This time, I was sure that I wouldn't be scared as swimming made me very comfortable with the water. I was right. I felt way more relaxed in the boat and even though I was still scared at times, I finally realized that being a kayaker was in my blood. The skills I picked up in swimming quickly transferred to my kayak training. I was able to push myself to get better and I started training even more than I was before. I started making goals and even though I wasn't very good at the time, I told myself that one day I would like to become the best kayaker in the world.

At this same time I faced my next challenge. This was probably the biggest and most frightening experience of my career, especially considering that I was a young boy. One night after going to sleep in my own bed I was awakened in a small room, disoriented, with a horrible headache. Shortly after I awoke, I realized that I was in the hospital as a nurse quickly rushed into the room. In my confused state, I screamed at the nurse and my head started hurting even more. I had no idea what had happened to me. Soon after this incident, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I was rushed to the hospital because I had a seizure while I was asleep. Although I was put on medications and kept on close watch, my seizures kept happening. For the next couple of years, I had to deal with my new health problem and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to kayak again. Fortunately, I was still able to continue training as my seizures would only occur while I was asleep and so my doctor gave me the OK. To this day, I have to take medications and periodical brain scans. Fortunately, my type of epilepsy is less severe than other kinds and the doctors have always told me that it is common to grow out of this condition.

So, tree years later, I was racing at my first Junior World Championships in Foix, France. I had made tremendous progress in the last few years and it was clear that I was as good as some of the best junior kayakers in the world. I knew a medal was in reach and perhaps even the win. I was ready for it. For the last year, I've been waking up at 5am before school to train and then again after. I worked hard for this and the race was mine to lose. When I crossed the finish line in the finals, I was devastated. I picked up two penalties and once every competitor finally finished I ended up in fourth place, right outside of the podium. This was a tough pill to swallow. I felt such agony and disappointment and I thought that I would never get the same opportunity again. Still, I didn't give up and I resumed my training with a new set of goals.

It wasn't too long until I face another setback. In 2011, I started becoming competitive with the best kayakers in the country and ended up winning the U.S. National Team Trials. This was a huge result and it put me on the US National Team meaning that I could go race at international World Cups and World Championships. However, there was a catch. At this time I was not yet an American citizen. I was told I couldn't race in 2011 and my chance to make the Olympic Team in 2012 was very small because my citizenships process would take too long. I didn't let this stop me and I got in touch with a U.S. Congressman to help me expedite my citizenship to be able to compete in the 2012 Games. This was a long and stressful battle which unfortunately reached a dead end. I did not get the chance to make the Olympic Team in 2012 even though my chances were good. Yet again, I was faced with disappointment and I was uncertain about my future. Good thing it didn't matter what I thought because my future was looking bright. I became an American citizen six months after the Games and for the last two years I have been proudly representing my country, the United States.

Though 2013 was more of a learning experience for me as I competed against the best kayakers in the world for the first time, the next year after was my breakthrough year. In the 2014 season I became the World Champion in the Under-23 age category and picked up my first World Cup (bronze) medal. After so many years of setbacks and things I have had to overcome I finally feel my hard work and perseverance paying off. I finally feel content about all of the times I've kept going after I've felt like the world was telling me to give up. If there is one thing you take away from my journey as an athlete, please let it be the fact that I didn't let anything get in the way of my success. I faced my challenges head on and didn't let my fears, health problems, or the fact that I wasn't "American enough" stop me to continue chasing my dreams. No matter what you do in life, you will make your own path and don't be surprised when obstacles get in your way. Success will come in one way or another if you're willing to turn your weaknesses into strengths and learn from your every experience.

 
     
   
     
   
 
 
COPYRIGHT © 2014 MICHAL SMOLEN