07/20/2015 04:18 EDT | Updated 07/20/2016 05:59 EDT

#OurAthletes: Ben Hayward grabs bronze in Pan Ams, heads to Nationals

Edmonton's Ben Hayward thinks he missed the gold medal by a centimetre.

On Sunday, Hayward placed third in the slalom kayak finals at the Pan Am Games in Toronto — the same event in which he set a course record during the semi-finals just one day earlier.

"(It's) a little bittersweet," he said Monday. "It's nice to walk away with hardware, but certainly not the result I was hoping for."

But that's simply the way it goes sometimes, Hayward says.

Hayward said he made "some crucial mistakes" early in the race, missing a line while trying to complete a tricky technical move between gates five and six on the 23-gate race course. The error cost him about half a second.

"At that point, I knew I needed to make back up half a second somewhere, so I opted for a slightly riskier line in the 10th gate," Hayward said. "I knew that was a place where, with a perfectly executed move, I could make back that half second — but the water didn't quite work in my favour."

Instead, Hayward's kayak clipped the gate, adding a penalty of two seconds to his time. That's when he knew gold was out of his reach.

"So pulling out of gate 10 was kind of that sinking feeling of 'there goes the gold medal,' and then just trying to race it out for silver," he said.

"At that point, I wasn't quite in the same flow anymore."

River conditions complicate calculated risk-taking

That kind of risk-taking with only seconds to consider the possible outcome is a daily task for slalom kayakers — and something they train for, Hayward says.

Ultimately, though, he says it often comes down to the fluctuating course conditions on a given day.

"You're always on a different course, that water's always changing, the gate combinations always different," he said. "It's kind of like playing a game of chess while you're out there, where I had a mistake up at the top where I knew I had to change the game plan at the bottom to try make back some lost time."

"Ultimately, if I'd been a centimetre away from gate 10, I would have made back that half second and the risk would have been worth it and I would have been on the top of the podium."

Near misses are common in slalom kayaking, where the river conditions on a given day or even just in a certain moment can have a very real impact on the paddler's final standings. 

"In our sport, you very rarely see the same guy on the top of the podium every single time. Usually the best you can hope for is making the top 10 consistently."

Risk over regrets

Hayward, though, has no regrets he took the chance to save a half second.

"When you're in a finals run, there's no sense in playing it safe, at least not for my paddling style. I need to go all out."

Likewise, he is trying to let go of a frustrating semi-finals finish in his second event — pairs slalom canoeing.

That race was scheduled to start about an hour after his finals race in the slalom kayak — an already-tight turnaround that was further shortened when Hayward was held at the slalom finish line for an extra half hour.

Meanwhile, his partner and coach were waiting on him to walk the course, warm up and talk strategy. By the time Hayward made it to the event, he and partner, Cameron Smedley, only had time to jump into the boat, exchange a few quick words with their coach then do whatever planning they could while sitting at the start line.

Hayward said the rush left them flustered and unprepared, so they missed a gate completely and were knocked out of the competition.

"We're feeling a little cheated there, but honestly we're just going to have to live with that one."

The pair later placed second in a separate Olympic qualifying race.

Frustrations aside, Hayward says it was an amazing feeling to compete at the Pan Ams in front of a Canadian crowd.

"There's nothing wrong with bronze," he said. "It was amazing to hear that hometown cheer when I got up on the podium."

Hayward will have his next chance to qualify in slalom kayak for the 2016 Rio Olympics at the ICF World Championships held in London this September.

First, though, he's off to Chilliwack, B.C., for the National Whitewater Slalom Championships. After that, Hayward will be on his way back to the Czech Republic to pick up his hobbit van and hit the road to northern Spain, where he is set to compete in the final two ICF World Cup races.