Before Saturday it was unlikely many canoe slalom fans had heard the name Gabriel De Coster of Belgium.

But now they will all know him as an ICF World Cup gold medalist. In one of the most surprising men's kayak canoe slalom finals at World Cups we have ever seen, De Coster took the win and celebrated his first ever World Cup medal.

This is the biggest individual senior success for the 21-year-old kayaker whose best world cup result was 28th place in Prague this year, where he finished his race in the semifinal with a 50 seconds penalty.

At the 2022 Canoe Slalom World Championships in Augsburg, the last major senior international competition before the Pau world cup, he finished 100th.

Everything changed Saturday at the Pau-Pyrénées Whitewater Stadium. He qualified for the final with the sixth result of the semifinal and it was already clear he will set his best individual result in senior category.

He produced a penalty-free run and waited for more experienced and decorated athletes, including Olympic Games, world and European championships medallists, to finish their runs. With much surprise, none of the stronger athletes on paper managed to improve the time Gabriel set in the final.

"First final, first win. I am really happy. I know I can go fast, but did not know I can go that fast," the Belgian kayaker said.

"I knew the time was good enough for a medal, but athletes like Jiri Prskavec, Martin Dougoud and many others still had to come. We never know, it can always go faster."

Some athletes found the gates setting of the semi-final and final quite difficult. The new winner of the race could not decide exactly, how he felt about it:

"The course was and was not difficult at the same time. If you can use the water, it was not difficult, but it's difficult to use it. I really enjoyed it. All the time it was in the movement, we didn't need to fight against the water. I really appreciate it," he said.

It seemed the bottom part of the course was a decisive one in today's final, and Gabriel navigated through the gates successfully.

"Even with a small mistake in gate 19, I was really fast in the combination 19, 20, 21. And in the last upstream I had my nose directly down, so I just had to sprint until the finish."

The gold medal was not just the first one just for Gabriel De Coster, but the first one in history of canoe slalom world cups for Belgium.

"I had it in my head, now it's done, and I just want to try and get another medal."

He was successful also in the 2020 edition of the Junior and U23 Canoe Slalom European Championships in Krakow where he won the bronze medal.

"When I have a bad race, I just remember what I already did and what I am capable of. I don't think about it at the start line but when I feel the need, I know I have this medal," Gabriel said.

Until recently he worked with experienced Italian coach Roberto Di Angelo, and now he is working alone.

"We are still in contact. We write each other a lot and I call him sometimes," De Coster said.

"Unfortunately, in Belgium we do not have the same capacities as in the other countries. I work as I can, I think it worked pretty well today. I have some help.

I cannot live off canoeing, but I have enough to cover the season. Here, we are just two athletes. Sometimes we have others to help, but most of the time family helps."

He started his sporting path in wildwater canoeing, inspired by his mother who was also invovled in the sport, and where Belgium has much bigger tradition and historical success.

"I started with downriver at the beginning. Once I tried slalom, I dropped the wildwater canoeing, and just focused on slalom now," he said.

And the plans for the future? "I really want to go back to the Olympics, that's my biggest goal and hopefully to win many more medals."

Nina Jelenc/Pics by Balint Vekassy

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