Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McCandless: Rolling on a river paved with gold

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When he was 15 years old, Chilean native Pablo McCandless was just looking to have some fun. Then a Bethesda resident, he had just gotten a kayak, and thought it would be entertaining to give it a test drive on the Potomac River.

Over a decade later, he’s still putting his kayak to good use. Only he’s not just paddling for fun anymore, he’s paddling for Olympic glory.

McCandless, 26, now lives in Charlotte, N.C. to maximize his training for the most important kayaking event of his life — in about 10 weeks, he’ll be in Beijing, China for the 2008 Summer Olympics, where he’ll be Chile’s lone representative in the K-1 Men’s Slalom competition. He will be battling the world’s top-25 whitewater slalom kayakers on a course approximately 300 meters long, navigating ‘‘gates” — which are best described as obstacles competitors aim to paddle around — in an attempt to finish the course in the fastest time.

It’s quite a far cry from lazy summer days at Cabin John Regional Park in his teenage years. Little did he know then that the sport would eventually consume his life.

‘‘It all started with this friend of mine when he told me about this paddling school called ‘Liquid Adventures,’” said McCandless. ‘‘This guy named Tom McCune saw that I liked it, so he told me to take lessons two times a week. That became three days a week, then five days a week, and before I knew it, I was full-time into the slalom. But even then, it was all for enjoyment. I thought about competing, but never on the Olympic level.”

That began to change after he graduated from Whitman High in 2000. He specifically chose to attend Western Carolina University in Cullowne, N.C., in order to train with the Nantahala Racing Club and specifically coach Rafal Smolen, who coaches the USA Olympic Kayaking Team. Even in his high-school years, McCandless had gained experience with the U.S. National Team, which trained along the Potomac River.

But when he got to college, it became an even more important part of his life. He would attend classes for a semester, then take the next semester off to train. He would do so locally, but also internationally, in both Australia and Chile. In 2001, while on one of his training expeditions to Australia, local coaches approached him with the idea of training for the Chilean National Team —at the time, the goal was to find athletes who could compete for countries with developing kayaking teams, and Chile already had one.

By 2004, he was in full-on Olympic training. He trained in Pucon, Chile during the U.S. winter season to prepare for the international qualifier in Athens, Greece. He finished 26th, with only 25 eligible spots for the Olympic Team, leaving him off the team — however, he was the only South American representative that reached the qualifying-round semifinals.

For the past four years, his goal has been to make it back. Though he’s had to put school aside — with all the training breaks he’s taken, McCandless is technically only a junior at Western Carolina — that’s exactly what he’s done. Top-40 finishes year after year in international ‘‘World Cup” kayaking events gave him the confidence he needed for the 2008 Pan-American Championships in April, which were coincidentally (and fortunately for McCandless) held in his hometown of Charlotte. In the two-day event, he finished eighth, one spot ahead of the top Brazilian competitor, Selbach. That made him the fastest South American kayaker, and secured his spot at the Olympic Games.

‘‘It’s hard to actually remember what happened when I found out I made it,” McCandless said. ‘‘I kind of lost my breath a little and everyone was congratulating me. It took all those years of hard work and I finally did it.”

McCandless thinks of himself lucky for living in both Charlotte and Bethesda since childhood, which he considers the two top places in the country to train. Whenever he goes back to visit his parents, Jeff and Veronica McCandless (who have both become avid kayakers themselves), he goes back to the Potomac River to ‘‘kayak and reminisce.”

Since April, he’s stepped up his workouts in preparation for ‘‘training camp” in Beijing, which he leaves for this Thursday. He’s set realistic goals for himself, and doesn’t really believe he has a great chance to medal.

Or so he says.

‘‘I think I just want to be at least in the top 10 — and once I get there, I’ll see how I feel,” he said. ‘‘Actually, the way I can paddle, the top five is definitely a possibility. Top three? That starts getting hard. But I think the top five or 10 is possible.”