Of course there were two canoe slalom world cup finals in Prague on Saturday, but for many of the global audience watching on, there was just as much intrigue unfolding in the heats of the men’s C1.

It was there that the two best male canoe paddlers on the planet were going head-to-head. One was the reigning Olympic and World champion. The other was the reigning overall men’s world cup winner from 2023.

Both brilliant, both humble, and both from the same country. And after this day, only one of them would be going to the Paris Olympics. It is too cruel to even think about, but it is the way of the Games qualifiers, and more than a handful of world champions have never marched in an Olympic opening ceremony.

Benjamin Savsek and Luka Bozic have been here before. It was just as tight ahead of the Tokyo qualifiers, and here they were again, lining up in Prague, knowing that just one small mistake could be the difference between competing in Paris and watching it on television.

As the top two paddlers in the world, they were always going to be the last two athletes on the water. The first task for both was to make it to the final. The added stress was a late forced change to the format in Prague, which meant there would only be one heat, and the top ten competitors would go straight into the final.

There would be no second chances. The one small mistake analogy was ringing especially true as Savsek, the 37-year-old Olympic and world champion, lined up first.

It wasn’t a great run. Far from it, by his standards. A touch on gate 13 gave him a two-second penalty, and then he got into more trouble at the bottom of the course. When he crossed the finish, he was in ninth position. Only Bozic was still to come, so Savsek was guaranteed a place in the finals – by the skin of his teeth.

Bozic had no idea how his Slovenian teammate had gone. It wasn’t important. His only job was to get into the final. The rest would sort itself out later.

The touch came on gate four. Bozic would not have known, but he could have easily absorbed the two second penalty and still made the final. The time of the 10th paddler was almost four seconds slower than the quickest competitor.

Coming into the final three gates, it seemed the 33-year-old had the race under control. But suddenly the time started slipping away. A stunned crowd watched as the two-time C2 Olympian finished in 15th place. His Paris dream was over, while Savsek, sitting in his canoe at the bottom of the course, was off to his fourth Games and a chance to defend his Tokyo title.

What seemed like the weight of the world suddenly lifted from his shoulders. There would be no need for a shoot-out in the final.

“I’m really happy to put off this pressure for the spot at the Olympics, now I can focus for the big race,” Savsek said.

“It’s difficult, because the two best canoeists from the ICF rankings are fighting for one spot, and that’s hard. It was a lot of pressure in the last days. I was a little worried, but I was trying to just focus on the water and the gates.

“I was hoping not to do any big mistake, but it was okay. It was really close. It was tough, but I’m happy to have made it.”

Not that he needed confirmation of his ability to perform under pressure, but Savsek showed yet again he can step up when he needs to. A much relieved and more relaxed Olympic champion went on to win silver in Saturday’s final, but that was just the cherry for the top of the cake.

His main goal in Prague had already been achieved, even before he took to the water for the gold medal race.

“I think we were both afraid that one of us would be disappointed,” Savsek said.

“It’s a great relief. I will hope for one more Olympic dream to come true. I feel good, I’m happy to be there and to race.

“It’s good for the future for the big races that I can handle this big pressure.”

Pics by Dezso Vekassy

Slovenia Benjamin Savsek Prague 2024


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