Not many teen athletes get the opportunity to be coached by Olympic medalists or routinely train with and compete against the best in the world in their sport. One exception is Liam Malakoff, a 15-year old T.C. Williams High School sophomore and promising competitor in the thrilling sport of whitewater canoe racing.
Earlier this month, Malakoff competed in the American Open of the Canoe Slalom World Series, a major international race against the best paddlers in the world. He performed well enough in the meet to earn an invitation to train with U.S. Olympic team coaches and athletes.
Its an invitation that capped a remarkable summer for the young paddler. Malakoff has been a serious whitewater kayaker for several years, but until six months ago he had never tried a whitewater slalom canoe. The streamlined, tippy boats look like kayaks, but the paddler kneels instead of sits, and uses a single-bladed canoe paddle instead of a double-bladed kayak paddle. In races, Malakoff must navigate a twisting course through a set of gates hung above treacherous and sometimes dangerous rapids. Its not easy, and Malakoff spent much of the summer battling to stay upright and complete courses without having to abandon his boat midway during the competition. Several times, he nearly gave up the sport.
Then, this fall, the teen turned in some eye-catching performances in two big races the U.S. Whitewater Slalom National Championship and the American Open that attracted paddlers from around the world, including numerous Olympians fresh from the Beijing Summer Games. Although Malakoff finished far behind the winners, he competed remarkably well given his age and experience. As a result, this month he will begin training with coaches and athletes from the U.S. Olympic and National whitewater racing teams at several whitewater courses in the D.C. area.
It wont be his first chance to be tutored by the best. Since May, hes been training with a group of young paddlers coached by Dana Chladek, a two-time Olympic medal winner for the United States in womens kayak. Chladeks group, which trains on the Potomac River near Great Falls, includes a number of other promising kayak and canoe racers.
With a canoe stroke, you have to be more efficient, said the energetic Malakoff. You cant waste any strokes with a single blade.
But the athletic teen doesnt plan to give up kayaking any time soon. I chose C1 [canoe] racing for the slalom turning ability, but for running rivers, I still like being in a kayak, said Malakoff. You can get more power with two blades.