Tears flowed freely for Sona Stanovska as she stood in the sweltering Polish heat, listening to her country’s national anthem blaring out around the Krakow Whitewater Stadium.

Minutes earlier the 23-year-old Slovakian had finally realised a dream she often wondered would ever eventuate. Now here she was on the top of a world championship podium.

Tears of joy, tears of relief, as the realisation dawned on Stanovska that she had finally broken through for the gold medal she had worked to win for longer than she cared to remember. Often so close but yet so far, the frustration had been building – until Saturday.

This week really was the last chance saloon for Stanovska. Come Sunday evening, she will no longer be an U23 canoe slalom athlete. And after years of balancing her paddling career with her studies, Stanovska finally had some clear air.

“It’s incredible, because I was always just second and third, and now I finally have a title,” she said after winning the title.

“It’s an amazing feeling, I came to the finish line and I couldn’t believe how good my time was. Now I have incredible form, even the past three races I was going well, but I always had some gate touches which pushed me out of the medal position. But now today, it’s finally here.”

The early signs were good that this week could be something special. She set the fastest time in the heats of the women’s K1, and followed up with one of the fastest raw times in the semifinal. Two gate touches in the final robbed her of a top five finish.

In the C1 Stanovska posted the second fastest in the semifinal, and then in the final… the rest is history. And it’s been a long time coming.

“We had Covid so for the last few years I couldn’t race because we could not race as a Slovak team, so I missed two or three years. This was my last chance and I made gold – I have no words,” she said.

“I was always in the top three when I was a junior, but then I decided to do my studies. So for the past four years I was trying to focus on both, but when you are sitting on two chairs, you always miss something in school, or here.

I was always just second and third, and now I finally have a title

“But I was working hard and I finally finished my Uni, and from January I was working as hard as possible, and my dream came true.”

Stanovska said she would spend some time soaking up the win, but there really is no time to relax. In exactly one month it will be the 2023 ICF Slalom World Championships and Olympic qualifiers. And on other side of that, important Slovakian team selection races.

“Now we have our internal selection races for our Olympics, so La Seu, London and Paris is really important for me,” she said.

“But as I see I’m right now the first in the world, which is so incredible, so I have a great feeling to even push more.”

The competition for a place on the Slovakian team is intense. As Stanovska points out, among the women especially there are several strong paddlers.

“In my age the girls are more stronger than the boys,” she said.

“Sometimes it just happens that we beat the boys, so my generation is really challenging, but it’s also good because we push each other to the limit.”

And finally, a word for the long suffering family and support staff..

“My dad is always by my side, he takes my boats, when I cry he is next to me, when I smile he is next to me, and also the rest of my family and all my team. I’m really happy for them,” Stanovksa said, as the tears dropped onto her shining gold medal.

Pics by Damiano Benedetto

Slovakia Sona Stanovska Krakow 2023

Canoe Slalom