In the biggest race of his career, nothing was going right for Gainesville’s Ben Hefner.
The top-ranked sprint canoe paddler, Hefner started slow, struggled with his technique and felt his muscles dying down the stretch of Saturday’s senior men’s C1 200-meter finals.
And he still won.
Hefner came from behind to capture the race at Lake Lanier Olympic Park. He beat out fellow Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club paddler Ian Ross by less than two-tenths of a second to qualify for the Pan American Games on May 19-22 at Lake Lanier.
“I think I was very nervous, and it kind of took away from my power and explosion,” Hefner said after the race. “I didn’t get moving until about 70 or 80 meters in, and by that time, I was already a little behind. Then, at the end, my technique was a little off. The last few 30 meters or so, muscles were dying in the wrong spots, because I was using the wrong muscles. But it worked out okay.”
Hefner was the favorite in Saturday’s race, but had never won the 200 meters. Throughout his career, he had always finished second in the event, including a loss to his LCKC coach and former world champion Claudiu Ciur, who was one of the first on the dock to hug and congratulate Hefner.
“I used to just barely beat him,” Ciur said. “But I told him, ‘don’t worry, your time will come.’ Today was his turn to win and show that he’s the fastest 200-meter guy.”
With a win at the Pan Am Games, Hefner would automatically qualify for the Summer Olympics in Brazil and become the second Olympian produced by the LCKC.
The first LCKC Olympian, paddler Tim Hornsby, is in position to do it again, after winning the senior men’s kayak (K1) 200 meters Saturday. Hornsby was a member of the 2012 Olympics team for the London Summer Games.
Hornsby and Hefner will have plenty of LCKC company at the Pan Am Games. Ross won the C1 1,000 meters and teamed with brother Gavin Ross to win the senior men C2 1,000 meters. Fellow LCKC paddlers Chris Miller and Stanton Collins also qualified for the Pan-Am Games with event wins Friday at the trials.
Ciur praised his paddlers’ performance and pointed out the success of LCKC junior paddler Farran Smith, who won the junior women K1 200 meters Saturday.
“We still have some work to get done the next two and half weeks to be able to be Pan-Am champions,” Ciur said.