TOKYO — The most successful Olympian in Spanish history realized after the Rio Games that he had to leave his job.
In between winning four medals—two gold, one silver and one bronze—in sprint kayak from 2008 to ’16, Saúl Craviotto had worked as a police officer in Gijón, on Spain’s northern coast. (Sprint canoeist David Cal won five medals but only one gold.) Craviotto enjoyed the work, patrolling the streets, nabbing bad guys, trying to keep his city safe. Then, one day, he was frisking someone when the suspect recognized him.
But not for his kayaking. “You’re the MasterChef guy!” the suspect said.
After Rio, Craviotto, now 36, decided he needed a break from kayaking. He had picked up the sport as a child to spend time with his father, Manuel, a successful amateur kayaker. When Saúl was little, Manuel would tie a rope from the bow of his kayak to the stern of his son’s and take him on adventures. When Saúl grew tired, he would simply stop paddling and let his dad drag them both home.
But the son soon outpaced the father. In Beijing, Craviotto took bronze in the two-man kayak, 500-meter sprint. The next year, Spain’s Royal Order of Sports Merit honored him with a gold medal. In London, he took silver in the one-man kayak, 200-meter sprint. The Spanish team made him its flag-bearer at the Closing Ceremony. In Rio, he won gold in the two-man kayak, 200-meter sprint, and bronze in the one-man kayak, 200-meter sprint. The Royal Spanish Canoe Federation named him its 2016 Male Canoeist of the Year. (Canoe and kayak are two different disciplines—canoers kneel and use single-bladed paddles, while kayakers sit and use double-bladed paddles—but they are often presented as one category, canoe.)
None of this did much to raise his profile at home, but it made him eligible for MasterChef Celebrity, which was casting for its second season. (The show uses that term loosely; the occupation of one of the first-season contestants was listed as “former motorcycle racer and DJ.”)
He applied, was chosen—and, after 11 weeks of competition, emerged victorious. The winning dish was red fish with classic Catalan tomato bread, woodcock with apple and corn gnocchi.
In Spanish, he called it “a beautiful experience,” but added that “there were some repercussions.” Cooking, it turns out, is more interesting to television audiences than kayaking. Suddenly, it seemed everyone in Spain knew who he was. That included the people he was trying to arrest. It’s harder to be a policeman when the criminals want your autograph.
He started to feel a little ridiculous. His bosses agreed, and moved him to a desk job: He now gives speeches in schools. He said he handled the change well. And as his law-enforcement career dimmed, his celebrity brightened. He is sponsored by Reebok, as well as several food and kitchenware brands. And along with four-time Olympic swimming medalist Mireia Belmonte, he was Spain’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo.
On Thursday, Craviotto finished seventh in the one-man kayak, 200-meter sprint. That performance required three races in two days. Less than 24 hours later, Friday morning, he was holding a paddle again for the heat of the four-man kayak, 200-meter sprint, the event for which he says he really came to Tokyo. Spain finished first, in an Olympic-best 1:21.658, and got to skip the quarterfinal, held that night. The team will race the semifinal on Saturday morning; the final is scheduled for two hours later.
All this sprinting in 110-degree heat has not been too bad, Craviotto insisted, as he stood and sweated with a bag of ice slung atop his head. The team held a training camp in Kyotango, two hours northwest of Kyoto, so he has grown used to it. Plus, when he gets back to his hotel, he turns the thermostat in his room down to 68 degrees.
“We are fighting for an Olympic medal, so of course we have to suffer,” he said. “We have to grind every day.”
He plans to win that medal and take it home with him to Gijón—where, one hopes, the next criminal he encounters will have the courtesy to congratulate him on it.
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