Mindaugas Maldonis Photo: Courtesy of LTeam.
The small Baltic nation of Lithuania has been represented by at least one paddler in every Olympic Games since formally regaining its independence in 1991 after approximately 50 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. At the Tokyo Olympics, this honor was bestowed upon Mindaugas Maldonis – a 30 year old sprint kayaker who competed in the men’s K1 200m event. Maldonis had been preparing for the Olympic Games since his first kayak race when he was 12 years old on a local lake near his hometown of Daugai – approximately 70 km southwest of Vilnius. He finished towards the end of the pack during his first race, but stuck with the sport and quickly became a competitive force on the water.
“I started in the summer and in the autumn was the first race. It was around 5 kilometers or something. It was long. I think I finished second to last, it wasn’t anything spectacular, surprising or anything else,” he told me. “But it was fun because my friends were there.”
Winter descended not long after and athletic pursuits were limited to indoor activities. Local lakes freeze over and temperatures easily reach -20 C (-4 F) or colder. When the ice melted the following spring Maldonis could not wait to return to the water.
“With all my friends, all the fun times, it was addicting,” Maldonis told me. “You’re having a good time, and when you start to compete against your friends and you start to win against some of them. Some of them are stronger and some become weaker and it is an additional addiction to be the strongest of your group.”
Lithuania is home to numerous lakes, rivers and paddling clubs coached by former top athletes. In spite of that however, paddling as an athletic endeavor remains a somewhat obscure pursuit and the 13 athletes currently on the national team, LTeam, live a life of relative anonymity beyond the world of paddling.
When Maldonis was 16, he won every race in Lithuania, when competing against other paddlers in his age group. “Since I managed to win everything I wanted to continue,” he said. Not content to simply win among his peers, Maldonis was hungry for more. “I wanted to defeat the older guys!” he told me.
The start of his international career
Maldonis began competing internationally and winning events against other paddlers in his age group. He represented Lithuania as a junior in international competition from the age 16 and later on the national under 23 team. Then from age 24 onwards he has competed in European and world championships as a member of Team Lithuania.
His journey to becoming an Olympian, while seemingly continuously on the ascent was not without great sacrifice. It was not until he was 23 or 24 that Maldonis was able to support himself financially from paddling.
Prior to that, he was going to school full time and training twice a day. His level of commitment to the sport, however, was a clear indication that he wanted to continue paddling and one day be in a position to earn money from the sport.
“In Lithuania you can earn money by being a highly skilled paddler….but you have to show good results first,” Maldonis told me. It is challenging, however, as one naturally needs money to be able to train and successfully compete in order to have any hope of earning money from paddling. “You need money to get there and to continue. It is a vicious circle,” he said.
The Lithuanian National Team
Trakai Photo by Valdemaras D. on Unsplash
As a national team, Lithuania is a paddling powerhouse and is consistently ranked among the top paddling countries in the world. Six paddlers, five kayakers and one canoeist, represented Lithuania in the 2016 Rio Olympics. This year, only Maldonis qualified for the Games.
The LTeam paddlers train nine times a week throughout the spring, summer, and autumn at the idyllic lake of Trakai approximately 25 minutes west of Vilnius. Known around the world for its majestic 14th century castle built on an island in the lake, Lithuania’s training waters are undoubtedly among the most inspiring locations to be found anywhere on the planet. The team maintains a boathouse at the lake where their equipment is stored and has access to a nearby hotel set up to accommodate the elite athletes.
When winter descends and the lake freezes over the team decamps for southern Europe – typically Turkey, Croatia or Portugal, where they can take advantage of the warm weather and ice-free water.
Qualifying for the Olympics is challenging on its own and even more so as a European paddler due to regulations which grant representation from all regions around the world. Theoretically speaking, a European paddler could be among the fastest paddlers in the world, but not qualify for the Olympics due to the manner in which the regional quotas are allocated.
There were initially a few routes for Maldonis to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in different boat classes over varying distances, but in the end it came down to the final event in which to qualify – the K1 200m. The Olympic qualifying event was to be held as one of the races at the International Canoe Federation (ICF) World Cup in Barnaul, Russia in May 2021 and Maldonis had just six months to prepare.
On May 21, 2021, Maldonis struck like a bolt from the blue when he won the K1 200m Olympic qualifying event in Barnaul. Due to the manner in which Lithuania awards its athletes Olympic berths, the win in the Olympic qualifying event earned Lithuania, but not yet Maldonis, a ticket to Tokyo. His victory in the Olympic qualifying event was unexpected and caught everyone, including Maldonis, by surprise.
The following day at 12:41 pm, Maldonis punched his ticket for good when he finished first in the World Cup K1 200m final 0.044 of a second in front of the second place finisher and 0.332 of a second ahead of his teammate, Arturas Seja. The World Cup win earned Maldonis the honor to represent Lithuania at the Tokyo Olympics.
Mindaugas Maldonis Photo: Courtesy of LTeam.
The very word Olympics represents a monumental event. As any Olympian will almost certainly say, the Olympic Games represent the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Yes, there are world championships and other forms of international competition. Evenso, the distinction associated with the honor of representing one’s country at the Olympic Games continues to be a deeply held virtue among the world’s finest athletes.
“It’s a dream come true and an honor to be an Olympic athlete,” said Maldonis. “Overall [the Olympics] brings humanity together for those two weeks. It is the place where you can see what humans are capable of and what humans are made of.”
Maldonis approached the Games with the mindset that he wanted to do his best and not make any mistakes, regardless of the final outcome. He was already familiar with many of his fellow competitors in the Olympic K1 200m event from his limited international exposure in the K1 and he knew a few other paddlers from his time competing in the K4.
The K1 200m event is a challenging discipline. Races are over in less than 38 seconds and winning times are even faster. Every paddle stroke has to be precisely executed. There is no margin for error and even the slightest delay is enough to allow your competition to slip a few precious centimeters ahead. When the final whistle was blown, Maldonis finished in the top 10 among the 25 K1 200m competitors at the Tokyo Olympic Games. A solid capstone to his short tenure as a K1 200m racer.
The K1 200m event was retired from international competition after the Tokyo Olympics and Maldonis is now focusing his efforts on the K2 500m event. His first international competition since the Tokyo Olympics will be at the upcoming ICF World Championships in Copenhagen September 16 – 19, 2021 – just weeks away. Looking beyond the 2021 World Championships, Maldonis intends to continue competing and will strive to earn a coveted position to return to the Olympic Games in Paris. Time is on his side. The next Olympic qualifying event is just two years away.