Queens student Michal Smolen is not your typical freshman.
While other students might be spending their free time playing video games or lounging around the residence halls, Smolen is likely maneuvering a one-man kayak around a series of hanging poles while dodging fiery river rapids.
He is an Olympic hopeful in the sport of the kayak slalom. Originally from Poland, the 19-year-old student comes from a family of accomplished athletes. His mother was a professional handball player on the Polish national team, and his father, now his coach, was a member of the Polish national kayaking team.
Smolen made the USA Canoe/Kayak Team last year during the trials held at the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. The youngest member of the team, he won competitions on two of the three days. "It's quite an honor to train with past Olympians," he says.
In the April trials, he placed second overall, which secured his spot on the US national team competing for the World Cup this summer in Cardiff, Wales. However, he missed the Olympic Games in London because he is in the final stages of becoming an American citizen. He's not deterred though, as he hopes to represent the United States at the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Assistant Director of Admissions Leah Beth Parsons helped Smolen through the admissions process last year while he was deciding on which college to attend. "Queens was a good fit for him because he needed a school that was built upon relationships," she says. As Smolen explains, "It's important for me to have a good relationship with my professors, since I constantly travel. Queens allows me to have that relationship." Then he adds with a grin, "Having a Starbucks on campus was also pretty appealing."
Shawn Bowers Buxton '01, MFA '04, his CORE 112 professor and academic advisor, says he was a spirited participant in his classes. "In CORE, we really focus on creating communities, and Michal was often a big contributor. He made it evident that he was a student first, and an athlete second."
Smolen, a biochemistry major, admits that balancing his sport while completing a college degree is difficult. "Many athletes I personally know have sacrificed years of school in order to spend more time focused on their kayaking careers," he says. "For me, the goal is to treat my athletic and academic careers as equals, in order to have another career locked in for the future."