The competition in the men’s canoe slalom K1 is so red-hot this year, even some of the very best athletes are experiencing moments when they question if they really belong.

Italy’s Giovanni De Gennaro was one of those athletes, and then on Saturday he delivered a mesmerising performance on a tough course in challenging conditions to capture a World Cup gold medal.

“I feel great. I didn’t expect this result because I’ve had a really hard week, and the last couple of World Cup races were not that great,” he said.

“So I feel a bit of relief. I knew I could be fast, but I didn’t really expect this time.

“I wasn’t so good at the Europeans and at the first World Cups, so maybe now this is the result I need to get my season started.”

De Gennaro, who turns 25 this month and finished seventh in the K1 at last year’s Olympics, was the slowest qualifier into Saturday’s final.

But this gave him the advantage of being the first paddler in the final, and he took advantage of the opportunity to post a sizzling 92.83, a time no other paddler could get even close to.

Germany’s Sebastian Schubert went closest, but at 95.78 even he was almost three seconds adrift. Japan’s Kazuya Adachi was third in 98.29.

The Italian’s time forced the rest of the field to take even more risks than they might usually feel comfortable taking. Well known speedsters like Jiri Prskavec, Alexander Grimm and Lucien Delfour all found themselves picking up penalties as they tried in vain to match De Gennaro’s time.

He nervously joked with other paddlers as he watched paddler after paddler come after him. "Please don't make me cry" he jokingly said to the TV screen as he watched Prskavec pull off his signature moves.

In the end no-one could bring him to tears. His pre-race strategy had not been complicated, but it was effective.

“When you go on this course, you just feel tired,” De Gennaro said.

“You really can’t feel the flow of the water, and I didn’t expect that time at the finish line. I was just thinking about watching gates and keeping the line.

“I think it was a good approach to the race.”

De Gennaro’s one and only other World Cup gold came on his home course in Ivrea last year, a race in which he was also the first paddler on the course.

Having watched on this year while others have filled the podiums, De Gennaro is hoping Saturday will be the turning point in his year.

“It means a lot,” he said.

“I never take anything for granted. This season has been pretty hard, and I’m always wondering if I can be at this level or not. Every year is pretty hard, so it’s good to be on the top.

“I know there is still a lot to do because I don’t think I am one of the best in this category right now, so I have to work a lot to get the top spot.”

The third ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup continues in Markkleeberg on Sunday.

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