The king of canoe slalom, Tony Estanguet, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in canoe single (C1) slalom, retired after the London Games. His departure left Michal Martikan as the heavy favorite to win in Rio. Martikan, the 2012 London bronze medalist, failed to make Slovakia’s Olympic team, and now the C1 gold medal is anyone's for the taking.
Fourteen athletes advanced to the semifinal from results of their heats on Sunday, but only the top 10 C1 athletes advanced to the final.
These athletes must navigate through 24 gates in this 242-meter long slalom course of rushing whitewater in the fastest time possible.
A stacked field in C1 competed at Whitewater Stadium, with the top medal contenders showing some expected, but also unexpected, results.
Germany's Sideris Tasiadis – who says "no risk, no fun" – took first in the C1 heats (92.23 seconds) and continued risking it all, winning the semifinal in 95.63 seconds.
France's Denis Gargaud Chanut and Great Britain's David Florence, who finished second and third respectively in their heats on Sunday, advanced to the final, but had slower times in the semifinal than in their heats.
Slovakia's Matej Benus, a bronze medal favorite in Rio, showcased the fastest course time (90.78) on Sunday's heats, but three two-second penalties pushed him back to sixth place. In the semifinal, however, he finished in 100.68, good enough time to advance him to the final.
Slovenia's Benjamin Savsek finished a strong fourth overall in the semifinal in 98.70.
Spain's Ander Elosegi had a good showing on Sunday's heats and an even better one in the semifinals; his second-place time of 97.93 cruised him into the final.
American Casey Eichfeld, a three-time Olympian, finished 14th in the men’s C1 at the London Games and headed into the final 10th overall.
Eichfeld was first to drop in search of his first Olympic medal in three Games attended.
"It's a crazy thing to be sitting in a start gate of an Olympic final and know you are racing for the podium," Eichfeld told NBC Olympics. "I put everything I had on that course. I had a really fast time. Unfortunately I had two touches that are going to hold me off the podium, but I can go to bed tonight knowing that I literally did everything that I could."
If Eichfeld had not touched the two gates, it would have been a different story.
"I had a hope that it might get me on the podium, but I knew that it was a little slow. I was more focusing on the raw time," Eichfeld said. "That [time of] 95 is a very respectable run and as you see it would have put me on the podium. In the end I did everything that I could. I'm still really happy with that finish. I've gone from no semis in an Olympics to seventh in Olympics. That's alright. That'll get me through to the next one."
Eichfeld finished seventh in 99.87 after accruing two two-second penalties, but was satisfied with his run and, more importantly, life.
"[Competing in canoe slalom] is just a blast. I wake up every morning knowing that I get to go paddle my canoe, so I'm happy," Eichfeld said.
Martikan's successor, Matej Benus of Slovakia, is the second ranked C1 slalom athlete in the world, and it showed. He ripped through the gates early in the final and finished in an impressive 95.02, becoming the gold medal target to beat.
Things don't always turn out the way one hopes, though. Florence of Great Britain made two incredibly costly mistakes that interrupted his rhythm on the course and moreover accrued two two-second penalties. He finished in last place in the final, a crushing blow to the silver medal favorite.
The sleeper of them all was Japan's Takuya Haneda, who showed medal potential in his second run of heats after finishing in 94.58. In the final, he finished in 97.44 and was on course to land a spot on the podium.
Similar to Florence, Savsek, the gold medal favorite, was ahead of Benus' race-leading time, but two costly two-second penalties slowed his time down and bumped him down in the ranking.
The dark horse, France's Denis Gargaud Chanut, navigated the course with finesse in the final and topped Benus' time by almost a second finishing in 94.17 and took the lead for gold.
What was a promising finish in the semifinal for Spain's Ander Elosegi, it quickly turned to a disappointment in the final, he finished in 8th overall after two two-second penalties.
Lastly, Tasiadis of Germany was aggressively fast out the gate and showed gold medal potential, but an uncharacteristic two-second penalty cost him a spot on the podium. He finished 5th overall.
In the end, France won gold, Slovakia claimed silver and Japan took home bronze.
Eichfeld's support for the top three men showed.
"I'm really, really excited for all the medalists and I'll be gunning for them at the world cups, world championships and Olympics in four years," Eichfeld said.