This story featured in the 2012 July issue.
By Jamie McEwan
An observer unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Olympic selection process might have thought Scott Parsons a surprisingly subdued winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials in April. Yes, it was all very nice—congratulations, thank you—but where was the wild celebration, the winner hoisted on his friends’ shoulders, the cheers that had greeted, for example, the winner of the Canadian trials the day before?
The reason is simple. Parsons had won the trials, but he had not earned the right to represent the United States in the Olympic Games. He’d gained only a slight lead—31 points to 29—going into the final and deciding competition, the World Cup race in Cardiff, Wales, in early June. With as many as 25 points to be earned in Cardiff, three men remained in contention for the sole U.S. Olympic entry in slalom kayak: Scott Parsons, Jim Wade, and Brett Heyl. Three incredibly committed, equally matched athletes. Any of them would be an outside medal threat in London, yet only one will go.
Olympic selection began at the world championships in Bratislava last September, and continued until June 10 (after C&K had gone to press). It has been a long, arduous, emotionally fraught affair. And you could say that, for Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl, it has been going on for eight years.
Parsons and Heyl, then 25 and 22, made their Olympic debut in 2004 in Athens. Parsons placed sixth, Heyl 15th, and the stage seemed to be set for the kind of constructive rivalry that leads both athletes to international success. But starting in 2008, the International Olympic Committee began limiting countries to just one Olympic entry per event. That turned what might have been a competitive partnership into a zero-sum game. It has been a tough and often disappointing eight years for both Parsons and Heyl.
Scott Parsons, 33, has shaggy, curling dark hair, a quick and often self-deprecating smile, and an abundance of energy. He races with a kind of suppressed explosiveness, barely, it seems, keeping the heat of his desire under the necessary control. Racing is his life. Parsons moved from Sylvania, Ohio to the D.C. area—a longtime slalom mecca—immediately upon his high school graduation, following the example of his brother Brian, an elite racer and slalom coach 10 years Scott’s senior.
For the past seven years, Parsons has lived in a basement apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. College never particularly appealed, work has been intermittent, sponsorships elusive. Does Parsons feel out of place in his yuppie, upwardly mobile, suburban milieu? Perhaps a little, hence the self-deprecation. But then, consider: He’s doing what he wants to do. Can his neighbors say as much?
Brett Heyl, 30, is blond, clean-cut, precise, sensitive. Slighter than his teammates, Heyl relies on deftness and polished technique to speed his way down a slalom course. One competitor called him a “water-skipper,” floating over the waves rather than through them. A former ski racer who grew up across the river from Dartmouth College and attended a ski academy for five years, Heyl is talkative, opinionated, interested in everything. During the week between the Olympic trials in North Carolina and a training camp on the London course, Heyl finished up his last remaining coursework for an economics degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
The yearlong hype preceding the 2008 Beijing Games didn’t help the Parsons-Heyl relationship. Heyl rode the wave of anticipation, secured sponsorships with Nike and Bank of America, was featured and interviewed and celebrated. When Heyl went on to win the 2008 trials, the year’s promise seemed fulfilled. But then, as now, points earned at the World Cup also counted toward selection. Both men raced well in Europe, but Parsons, with a bronze in the Augsburg World Cup event, snatched the Olympic berth.
The burden of expectations shifted to Parsons. Professional athletes are accustomed to the spotlight; they have time to adjust. But for small-sport Olympians, the sudden, once-every-four-years glare can be blinding. Parsons showed the form to be in medal contention, posting the third-best result in the first heat. Then, rushing into an upstream gate during his second run, he tried to duck his head around a pole, and was given the dreaded 50-second penalty for entering in the wrong direction.
End of Games.
It’s hard to say which athlete was more thrown by his 2008 disappointment. Heyl went on to place second overall in the World Cup—a terrific result that earned the respect of the paddling elite—yet he had been absent from the one competition that matters in the wider world. His sponsors evaporated. When Heyl turned 27 that fall, he thought seriously about quitting the sport.
And yet, not only was he racing well, he could see so many ways to improve. So in January 2009, Heyl assembled the support of friends and sponsors to begin his preparation for London 2012. The following year, he placed a strong seventh at the World Championships in Spain.
“It’s all about redemption,” Heyl says.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2008, Parsons declared he was “98 percent sure” that he was through with serious competition. In 2009, he switched into the canoe classes, and even qualified for the U.S. team in C-2, but didn’t compete in the Worlds.
Yet, he was learning to have fun again. And so-called “real life” was not calling. With the wholehearted support of his wife, Lauren Bixby, a special education teacher, Parsons decided in late 2009 to go for his third Olympics.
And there is a new player this year—Jim Wade, who, as it happens, placed second in the Olympic trials ahead of Heyl. Twenty-six years old, 6 feet tall, 165 pounds, Wade is the youngest and largest of the three. Although he is often reserved, the intensity of Wade’s blue-eyed, analytical gaze might remind you that he is a Ph.D. candidate in biological engineering at Georgia Tech, and the winner of a National Science Foundation fellowship. Yet he paddles with a daring and supple abandon that seems more art than science. Wade spent his early years in Boise, Idaho, then came East for high school, in search of coaching and racing opportunities. As a Georgia Tech undergrad, training in Atlanta, Wade made four U.S. teams between 2006 and his college graduation in 2010.
Wade faced his own decision point a year ago, when, plagued by penalties, he failed to place onto the 2011 World Championship team. Wade met with his parents and told them he should either punt, or go all out for the Olympics; the half-and-half approach was no longer working.
Go for it they did. Wade put his academic career on hold to spend the past year traveling the globe, racing and training in the best conditions he could find, accompanied by his father, who holds a stopwatch or video camera during most workouts.
Just one week after the close of the Olympic trials, the three selected athletes flew to London to train on the Olympic course. They paddle at the same time, and gather together afterward with U.S. slalom coach Silvan Poberaj for video analysis and advice. For the next seven weeks they will be simultaneously teammates and rivals, living and working together at various training camps, and sharing a common goal: to deny the other two the indivisible prize that all three have sacrificed mightily to win.
The pressure mounts.
The commitment of these three athletes is impressive, even astonishing when you consider how slim the rewards. What’s more, two of them will walk away from the final trial—June’s Cardiff race—bitterly disappointed.
But probably not regretful. As Parsons says: “It’s a privilege to get to do this, and it’s a choice, and it’s fun. In 2008, I kind of lost sight of that … this time around, I just try to enjoy every moment.”