USA kayaker Michal Smolen seeks to make Olympic history

Meet USA kayaker Michal Smolen
Meet USA kayaker Michal Smolen 04:51

When it comes to the Summer Olympics, kayaking doesn't usually make it into the headlines. But this year, it's expected to make a splash.

The standout for the USA men's canoe and kayaking team is 23-year-old Olympic kayaker Michal Smolen. He's considered one of the fastest kayakers in the world, and if he performs as expected, he could make history as the first American male to medal in the sport, reports Meg Oliver of CBS News' digital network, CBSN.

At the Olympic trials in Oklahoma City, he navigated the rapids with smooth precision.

"For me it's very addictive. It's something that brings me back every day," Michal said. "I think it's the thrill. You want to get as close to the gates as possible. You want to just be one with the water and that's just a feeling that keeps you coming back."

Kayaking did not come naturally for Michal. It's hard to believe, but as a young kid, Michal was terrified of the water.

"I saw my dad do it when I was probably around 6 or 7 years old the first time and I really wanted to do it," Michal said. "But then, when I got in the boat, I was actually very scared and I told myself that I wouldn't do it after that experience."

Michal's father, Rafal, is the coach for Team USA.

"What did you think, Rafal, when you saw your son's fear?" Oliver asked.

"If he wanted to join, he had to do everything the same way everybody else was doing. So for me, it was either you do it or you get out," Rafal said.

Born in Poland, Rafal was a member of the Polish national team. The family immigrated to the U.S. when Michal was 10. Michal turned to competitive swimming to conquer his fear of the water. At 13, he tried kayaking again and it clicked.

"What did it feel like that second time around?" Oliver asked.

"I think I was really relieved and it was just because I wasn't as scared and I was willing to try new things and get on bigger rivers," Michal said.

"Was it always your dream to make it to the Olympics?" Oliver asked.

"I think I've always been very competitive even outside of sports," Michal said. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be the best if I did something, so I remember starting to kayak and I told myself that I would want to go to the games one day if I did it professionally."

His drive and dedication paid off. At 17, Michal made the 2012 Olympic team, but he never competed. With only a green card, he was still waiting for citizenship. It came seven months too late.

"I mean, the whole struggle with my citizenship makes it that much more meaningful. And just the work that I put in over the last four years has been tremendous and it's gotten me to the level where I think that I could actually come back from Rio with the medal," Michal said.

Last year, Michal won Team USA's first men's kayak world medal in 16 years. He credits his dad for the intense training and tough love.

"What's it like to have your dad as your coach? He's the only coach you ever had," Oliver said.

"Yeah, it's different and it's intense sometimes. Just try to focus on what we have to do and it's hard for me sometimes. I get the better of me and I lose my temper but that's why I have him to calm me down and send me in the right direction," Michal said.

As for Rafal, he said it's certainly not easy to coach his son.

"It's not easy to coach any athlete of the top level athletes because to get to the top level you have to be in some ways a perfectionist or you have to push yourself. You have to be intense and, you know, trying to do your best every day," Rafal said.

"What do you usually say to him right before he competes?" Oliver asked.

"Well, last time I told him to have fun and then win," Rafal said, laughing. "So I guess I'm going to say the same thing in Rio."

The finals are set for next week and all eyes will be on Michal to make history as the first man to medal for Team USA. Two women have won medals in the sport before, in 1964 and 2004.