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17-YEAR-OLD MAY BE BEST HOPE FOR GOLD

Canoeing: Michal Martikán

When canoeist Juraj Minčík speaks of his teammate, Michal Martikán, he does so with the appropriate respect for a world champion. "Although I'm not on a par with Mišo Martikán, I have beaten him twice," Minčík says. "Maybe he wasn't fully focused and motivated. Beating him helped my self-confidence. For now, a place behind Mišo is fine with me." But what makes 19-year-old Minčík's comments extraordinary is the fact that Martikán himself just turned 17 years old.


"This, hopefully, will not be my only chance in the Olympics. If I finish in the top six, I will be satisfied."

Michal Martikán



Peter Pospíšil

When canoeist Juraj Minčík speaks of his teammate, Michal Martikán, he does so with the appropriate respect for a world champion.

"Although I'm not on a par with Mišo Martikán, I have beaten him twice," Minčík says. "Maybe he wasn't fully focused and motivated. Beating him helped my self-confidence. For now, a place behind Mišo is fine with me." But what makes 19-year-old Minčík's comments extraordinary is the fact that Martikán himself just turned 17 years old.

Despite being the youngest Slovak athlete in Atlanta, Martikán will be one of the country's best hopes for Olympic gold. He won the World Championships outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, in April on the same course he will race on in the Olympics. There he beat his major rivals from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the U.S.

"I like that course," Martikán said in his passable English recently. "It is a natural course with a lot of big waves." That claim once belonged to the place he learned to run the mountain rapids outside his home town of Liptovský Mikuláš from his father Jozef, a former Czechoslovak national team member. Now he calls that course "nice," but "too old - it is about 30 years old."

The course where the world champ first sharpened his strokes is now nearly twice as old as he is. While Martikán may have outgrown his old course, he stays close to his mentor and father, who will travel with his son as one of the national team coaches.

"My father and I, we are a good team," Martikán said. From the time Michal was nine, his father taught him that technique is more important than power for paddling through white water slalom. Michal learned this lesson well, using superb technique to outpace stronger rivals in competitions starting at age 10.

He also played ice hockey, but gave that up at 13, so he could train for his first World Junior Championships in Wisconsin, which he won. Since that time, expectations have grown as quickly as the young man himself.

"He has a chance for a medal," Ján Dojčan, general secretary of the Slovak slalom canoeing asscoiation said of Martikán. "It depends on whether he has a good day and if the public doesn't put too much pressure on him. His times in different races show that he is one of the world's top canoers."

While Martikán is well aware that he is now the man to beat, he said he does not feel much pressure. "This, hopefully, will not be my only chance in the Olympics," he said, showing perspective beyond his years. "If I finish in the top six, I will be satisfied."

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