A Friendship Tests the Waters

scott parsons - u.s. olympic team
Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl were teammates on the U.S. Olympic team in Athens in 2004. But kayaking's international rules now restrict each country to one boat per class, meaning one of the two friends will be left off the U.S. team. (Toni L. Sandys - The Post)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

They have been friends for more than 15 years now, drawn together by a love of whitewater kayaking and bound by so many seasons of pushing one another in fitness and technique.

As teenagers both were named to the U.S. national kayak team. In their early 20s, they trained and lived alongside each other in Bethesda's Brookmont neighborhood, perched on a bluff overlooking the Potomac, which a close-knit community of world-class paddlers has called home since the 1980s. And in 2004 they were teammates on the U.S. Olympic team, awarded the country's two slots for single kayak at the Athens Games.

Scott Parsons, 29, and Brett Heyl, 26, are still the country's best in their discipline, K-1 (also known as single kayak), as the 2008 Beijing Games near. But their sport's international rules have changed, restricting each competing country to one boat per class. And the upshot has transformed a sport in which paddlers battle furious whitewater rapids into one in which, in this case, they battle their closest friend.

Both Parsons, who still lives in Bethesda, and Heyl downplay the mano-a-mano aspect that the new restriction has introduced to Olympic qualifying.

"One cool thing about our sport is, you're not really racing anybody," says Parsons, who finished sixth in Athens. "You can't do anything about anybody else; I can't guard [Heyl] while he's coming through the course. It's totally cliche, but if you just do your own thing and concentrate on your own race, hopefully it goes well."

Heyl, who moved to Charlotte in 2006 to be near the U.S. National Whitewater Center, says the fact that they both are battling for a sole Olympic spot has helped their friendship.

"This year, especially because of the competition between us for the one spot, it has actually relaxed our relationship," says Heyl, who has regarded Parsons as a role model since he was 10. "It's not really personal anymore. Whoever races better is going to win. There's almost a peacefulness to it; there's not the insecurity of, 'Oh, he's better!' I can admit that he's really good. I have no insecurity about that, whereas four or five years ago I could have really struggled with that."

There's a rationale behind the sport's one-boat limit, explains Silvan Poberaj, a former coach of the Slovenian national team who was named the U.S. national coach in 1993. It has to do with expanding the sport's appeal.

The world's best kayakers have traditionally come from Europe, particularly Germany, France, Slovakia and Hungary -- countries rich with paddling talent. If each were allowed more than one boat per class, there would be little opportunity for kayakers from other continents to contend for an Olympic medal. And there would be precious little incentive, in turn, to develop a pipeline of talent with future medals in mind.

Poberaj sees the wisdom, noting, "This sport still has to grow, especially in Africa, Asia and South America."

But he also sees the downside of the rule, especially when he considers the expertise and commitment of Parsons and Heyl, whom he has coached for several years.

"They both deserve to go," Poberaj says. "They are both good enough and ranked internationally high enough that they deserve to go. I think it's unfortunate."

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