A Watershed Moment For Bethesda's Parsons

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 11 -- Mere numbers cannot fully quantify the distance between third place after the first heat of the Olympic kayak slalom and 20th after the second. Until 6:22 p.m. Monday, Bethesda paddler Scott Parsons looked like a medal contender here. In less than two minutes he was out of the Summer Games.

Parsons came a long, long way to get swept up in the foamy water and spit out in the qualifying round. About an hour before Parsons committed a critical mistake that prevented him from advancing to Tuesday's semifinals, USA Canoe/Kayak Executive Director David Yarborough summed up what had seemed a simple goal for the afternoon, "This is actually about not destroying yourself."

Parsons's calamity? He missed one gate as he powered through the rushing water. It was the 20th of 21 that did him in. It meant, technically, a 50-second penalty. It sank him to 20th. Only the top 15 advanced.

"Other than the penalty, I think the run was good," he said. "The whole point of today is to race tomorrow."

In that sense, there is no tomorrow for Parsons, who instead lands at a career crossroads -- another one -- sooner than he expected, or seemed possible. After finishing sixth at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Parsons quit the sport. After a year, he came back. He entered these Olympics ranked ninth in the world. He won the bronze medal at the sport's most recent World Cup.

It had been a great season. But some difficult things have not changed.

For the fifth year, he has lived with his girlfriend in the basement of his boss's home. "You can only enjoy being poor for so long," his brother, Brian Parsons, said before the second heat. Scott Parsons, once considered his sport's golden boy, is now 29. He holds a part-time job as a technician at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, making prosthetic limbs, but he lacks a college degree -- and, of course, a full-time salary.

He and Lauren Bixby, a special education teacher at Wheaton High, share the basement apartment with one dog and two cats. The place includes a bed, bedside table, chair, couch, mini-kitchen and bathroom. Bixby pays the majority of their bills.

"Every four years, you have to make a decision," Parsons said. "At times, I didn't necessarily think over the last four years I had made the right decision. It was a long process. . . . But I don't regret anything. It's about a lot more than just a race."

That was abundantly clear in the section of the stands occupied by Parsons's friends and family, who were barely able to breathe as Parsons maneuvered through the bracing water but were positively exuberant when he wasn't on the course. They had assembled for the Athens Games, living together on a rented 48-foot sailboat docked near the canoe and kayak venue.

This trip had proved as much fun.

"We're not excited for us," said Mary Parsons, Scott's mother. "We're excited for him."

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