Whitewater slalom is a sport in which you must go far, usually to Europe, to find out how good you are. This is especially true for U.S. paddlers, who over the decades have brought home Olympic and world championship medals from places such as Augsburg, Germany, La Seu d'Urgell, Spain, and Bourg St. Maurice, France.
But to get there many have spent a lot of time building their skills when living closer by, often in the Brookmont neighborhood of Bethesda, where kayaks and canoes are stored in driveways and yards when not used on the Potomac River, which is a short walk, and another world, away.
Some of the past greats, including world champions and Olympians David and Cathy Hearn and Jon Lugbill, grew up nearby; others, including kayakers Scott Parsons and Brett Heyl, moved here with a purpose -- to work with top coaches, train with elite paddlers and, in time, join the short list of the best. This is the way it is working for Parsons and Heyl, who recently made the Olympic team and will compete in the Athens Games in August.
Parsons, 25, and Heyl, 22, finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in the most recent World Cup race, held in late April outside Athens. They secured berths in the Games by doing so, the culmination of a stressful selection process that began at the world championships last year and continued at the U.S. Olympic trials in early April in South Bend, Ind., where they took first and second.
"We're both really psyched for each other because we both felt that we earned our spots in Athens," Parsons said. "We showed up and we raced and we raced well. That was a cool feeling."
By their World Cup results, and bearing in mind there is still much racing to do over the summer, they must be considered two of the fastest slalomers in the world heading into what Bethesda native Joe Jacobi, who qualified for his second Olympics 12 years after winning gold in the Barcelona Games in two-man canoe, recently called "the racing in August."
"They handled the pressure very well," U.S. Coach Silvan Poberaj said. But "the Games, it's at a different level. The number of athletes is relatively small. Also with that number there are going to be a lot who can't handle the pressure. It's going to be who's going to handle what's going on" who will win.
It will be the first Olympics for both, but Parsons and Heyl are not inexperienced. They have known and raced against each other since they were children and at times have excelled on the international slalom circuit. Parsons took eighth in the world championships last year, Heyl was ninth in the season's final World Cup race not long after. The distance to the podium from where they finished is short.
It was on a big-water course next to the Danube River outside Bratislava, Slovakia, where things began coming together for Heyl, who is from Norwich, Vt. He'd been a dynamic, talented paddler for a long while, but then something clicked.
"I definitely had a breakthrough last year at the World Cup final," said Heyl, who took a leave from George Washington University to train full time, with a good chunk of the winter spent at the whitewater course in Australia (said to be similar to the Athens course), where Germany's Thomas Schmidt won gold in 2000. "I think I started to believe more in myself."
World Cup slalom is based mainly in Europe, where it is very popular. Last year's worlds, held in Augsburg, drew about 52,000 over a long weekend and was widely televised. The top European paddlers, such as Schmidt, two-time Olympic gold medalist Stepanka Hilgertova of the Czech Republic and two-time world champion Fabien Lefevre of France, can draw upon deeply funded resources for coaching, equipment and travel expenses.
This is far beyond what is available to Heyl, Parsons and other top American paddlers, but it hasn't kept them from excelling. Many whitewater kayakers and canoeists, on modest budgets, over the years have made it a point to move to the Washington area to train with the best racers and coaches, usually at the powerful warm-water course in Dickerson, Md., and at the slalom course on the Feeder Canal on the Potomac, just below Brookmont.
The Feeder Canal, just off the main channel of the Potomac, contains a tree-shaded stretch of moderate whitewater that is an ideal place to develop race techniques. Without getting out of their boats, slalomers can adjust the gates, which hang above the water and are attached to wires tied to trees on the opposing banks, to make the courses harder or easier, depending on the demands of practice.
The list of Feeder Canal regulars can start with Maryland native Jamie McEwan, an Olympic bronze medalist in 1972 in canoe. Two-time Olympic kayak medalist Dana Chladek and the late Rich Weiss, a two-time Olympian, sharpened skills there. Lugbill, a five-time world champion canoeist from Virginia, and David and Cathy Hearn, world champions in canoe and kayak, respectively, were longtime Brookmont fixtures. David Hearn, now coaching, still lives in Brookmont, as does Bill Endicott, the longtime U.S. national team and Olympic coach who returned to the sport this year as Olympic team manager. Poberaj, who is preparing his third U.S. Olympic team, lives a few miles down the road in Cabin John. Jacobi, who lives near the Ocoee river in Tennessee, often is in town to visit family and attend training camps with his C-2 partner, Matt Taylor of Atlanta.
Brookmont was a big enough draw that Parsons -- following the model set by his older brother, Brian, a former racer who is a USA Canoe/Kayak official -- packed his car and headed to Brookmont shortly after graduating from high school in 1997. The focus since has been racing and the difficult work it takes to become one of the best. He'd first seen this during the regular trips his family would make from Sylvania, Ohio, to Brookmont for whitewater training weekends, then hustling back home in time for school on Monday.
"To live in the neighborhood and see all those people who were part of . . . that historical part of the sport," Parsons said appreciatively. "All these guys are here, and I'm part of it."
As is Heyl. The Olympics are 90 or so days away, and there is much left to do. Their job, with Poberaj's guidance, is to peak at the right time, during the racing in August. It likely will be more difficult to stay comfortable amid the surge of brief interest, the new demands, the layers of people who attach themselves because they follow the five rings and slalom happens to be part of it.
All of it can make essential things -- being focused at the start, racing up to your ability -- difficult. But the essence of the sport, whether at the Feeder or at Dickerson or in Greece, is the same. Paddle fast, avoid hitting gates, give all.
"The U.S. has come this far in remarkably good shape," Endicott said of the slalom team, which also includes San Diego's Rebecca Giddens, the world champion in kayak in 2002 and bronze medalist last year, and canoeist Chris Ennis of Bryson City, N.C. "Making the Olympics is a huge accomplishment, a huge hurdle. . . . Now you're going to be judged by the next class up . . . amongst Olympians."