It was the scene of one of the highlights of Josef Dostal’s paddling career, the subject of one of the sport’s greatest photographs – but a moment of unbridled celebration could have given this iconic moment a very different ending.

Dostal, the Czech gentle-giant, broke through for a world championship K1 500 title, in front of his home crowd in Racice. It was 2017, and an exuberant audience made him feel invincible.

In his excitement, Dostal leapt from his kayak and splashed into the water. Five years later, Dostal reveals that impetuous act could have cost him his medal.

“Not many people know this, but I perhaps should have been disqualified for jumping in the water,” Dostal declares, somewhat sheepishly, this week.

“I had to say that I got cramps in my back and had to jump in the water. It’s the ICF rules, so I hope they don’t disqualify me after this article.

“It was one of the greatest moments in my kayak career, when you win in front of your home crowd you feel like a rockstar.”

So don’t expect a repeat from Dostal or any of his teammates if they finish on top of the podium when the ICF canoe sprint world cup season kicks off in Racice on May 20. But overexcited crowds can do strange things to equally excited athletes, so best just to watch this space…

When you win in front of your home crowd you feel like a rockstar.

We caught up with Dostal on the final few days of a training camp in Chula Vista, California, midway between San Diego and the Mexican border. It’s a regular haunt for Dostal and athletes from all over the world, taking advantage of the favourable climate, the relative anonymity and the world-class facilities.

Getting back into heavy training was a bit of a shock for the 29-year-old, who had made the most of a break from paddling after Tokyo.

“I felt like I really needed to have a rest after the Games,” Dostal said.

“The last three years, with an extra ‘covid’ year, were extra hard. I felt like I needed to take a longer time off without paddling. I still spent a lot of time on the water, but this time on my rubber kayak catching fish.

“When everyone else was training on the river in Prague, I was also there, but with my anchor under the bridge and catching fish.”

Dostal is almost as passionate about his fishing as he is his paddling. Maybe even more so. But any thoughts of turning his gigantic kayak into a fish pond and settling into retirement have not crossed his mind.

I felt like I really needed to have a rest after the Games

Paris 2024 is front and centre of his mind. Los Angeles, just up the road from Chula Vista, is also pencilled into his diary. At one point in our conversation, Brisbane 2032 is also mentioned.

“I have big goals with my career,” he said.

“I know I am not the youngest, but I’m also not the oldest. I have three Olympic Games behind me, and I’ve achieved a lot, but there are still some goals that I would like to achieve.

“There are new things which will push me, and of course what I am missing is the gold medal. The distances have changed for the K2 and the K4. I have Olympic medals from three disciplines, so maybe I might get more.”

While Dostal missed a K1 medal in Tokyo, he picked up a bronze in the K2 1000 alongside Radek Slouf. In Paris the K2 distance will be halved, which has Dostal licking his lips. He boasts an impressive track record over a distance he enjoys, and hasn’t been beaten in for a long time.

And he’s also been dabbling in the K4, which remains over 500 metres in Paris. It’s all a learning process at the moment, but it’s the same for everyone else.

“In the future the K1 is still my goal, especially for Paris. If I can be in the top three during world championships and world cups, I will prioritise my K1,” he said.

"But I would also like to try the K2 500, and maybe the K4 500 because we have a lot of fast guys in the Czech Republic for the 500 metres.

“We have to get a new rhythm going, its going to be hard, but I think we can make it.”

It’s not bad to be fifth at the Olympics, but I wanted to win

Dostal didn’t need to spend too long after Tokyo analysing his performance. Basically the big man was a victim of the conditions.

“To be honest, there were eight guys who could win the gold medal,” he said of the K1 1000 field.

“Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. I think on that day the good luck turned its back on me. I am not confident to race in tailwind conditions, because of my weight and because of my type of stroke.

“When the strong wind came, you can see the times, they’re insanely fast. I think the wind wished me bad luck – and not just me, the Australians were also big and don’t like a tailwind.

“But it happens, I was fifth, which is not a disaster. It’s not bad to be fifth at the Olympics, but I wanted to win because then I would have achieved everything at the Olympics.”

The challenges Covid presented to elite athletes have been well documented. Mentally and physically it pushed competitors to their limits.

For Dostal it was no different. When the Games were delayed by 12 months it meant another year under an intense spotlight, carrying the burden of expectation every time he entered the water. He felt the stress, but there was an upside.

“Imagine every year you have a medal from the world cups and the world championships, and then the pressure on you to win is so high that you have to live with this stress all year. And because of Covid, this time there was one year more,” he said.

“With the Olympics, every single hour of every single day you have it in your head. It makes your life a little bit uncomfortable, to have it in your head for two or three years, it makes you nervous all the time.

“On the other hand, it helped our K2 to get better. Three years ago when we raced at the World Championships in Szeged, we took the fourth place and we were three seconds behind the Germans. At the Olympics, we were half a second behind them. That’s the improvement you can see in our crew.”

Every single hour of every single day you have it in your head

But that is now all a memory. Dostal is thrilled to return to international racing in front of a home crowd, even if it might mean curbing his enthusiasm if he crosses the line first.

While he claims to not be sure which events he’ll contest in Racice, long term he knows where he wants to be.

“After my break I jumped into training with a great attitude, I found the passion for the sport again which I maybe lost a bit before the Olympics,” he said.

“For me it’s now not just Paris, it’s also Los Angeles. So three Olympics behind me, and maybe another two or three in front of me.”

The opening ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup for 2022 begins in Racice on Friday, May 20.

Czech Republic Josef Dostal K1 500 Szeged

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