Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2012 15:19 | By

Slovakia: Michal Martikan

Born: 18/05/1979

Michal Martikan paddles to canoe slalom victory at Beijing 2008. (© Press Association)

Michal Martikan paddles to canoe slalom victory at Beijing 2008.

Born: 18/05/1979

Place of birth: Zilina, Slovakia

Event: Canoe Slalom

Previous Olympics: 4

Previous medals: 4

Not many 17-year-olds become their country's first-ever Olympic gold medal winner, but canoe slalom star Michal Martikan did just that.

Just three years after gaining independence, Slovakia sent the young canoeist to the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and a few weeks later, he returned with a gold medal around his neck and became a national sporting hero.

His win in the USA, which was preceded by a World Cup gold medal, was the start of a run of success that has seen him reign supreme in the sport of canoe slalom for more than 15 years.

However, Martikan has not had it all his own way; he has had to share the glory.

Much as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have pushed each other to the limits to compete for tennis greatness, Martikan has found his rival in the form of France's Tony Estanguet. Together, the pair have dominated the C1 canoe slalom class.

A quick look at the Olympic records since 1996 demonstrates their all-conquering rivalry. Martikan was beaten to gold at Sydney 2000 and controversially again at Athens 2004 by Estanguet when, after finishing first, a late review saw the Slovakian given a two-second penalty that pushed the Frenchman to the top of the podium.

Martikan then won gold again in Beijing, 12 years after his first Olympic triumph, beating Great Britain's David Florence and Australia's Robin Bell into silver and bronze respectively.

It is not just at the Olympics where Martikan has succeeded either; between 1995 and 2010 he won a medal at every World Championships, including four individual golds, before finishing outside the top three positions for the first time in 2011.

He is also a four-time European champion and a multiple World Cup winner.

But what is the secret of the four-time Slovakian Athlete of the Year's success? If not his desire to beat Estanguet then perhaps it is his supreme drive and remarkable efforts in training - former US coach Bill Endicott told the International Whitewater Hall of Fame that Martikan did almost double the amount of training runs that his US athletes used to do.

Or perhaps it is his diet. He apparently prepares for competition by eating potato dumplings topped with the special sheep cheese called bryndza, all washed down with pure mountain water from wells in the Liptov region of his homeland.

Whatever it is, with gold in his sights, dumplings in his stomach and the fire for more success in his heart, it seems that Martikan's position as one of the leading sportsmen in the world is secure.