U.S. Olympic kayak hopeful Scott Mann of Bethesda trains in Dickerson, Md. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Two-time Olympic alternate just doesn’t have a great ring to it. Bethesda’s Scott Mann almost won a U.S. Olympic team berth in men’s kayak during the Olympic trials in 2004. He got even closer in 2008. Both years, Mann was told to stay home and wait by the phone in case somebody got sick or injured.

No calls came.

“Hopefully, the third time is the charm,” Mann says.

At the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials for Canoe Slalom beginning Thursday in Charlotte, Mann, 29, could take a major step toward guaranteeing himself a trip to the London Games this summer. A win would give him an edge, but the selection will remain unresolved until a World Cup event in Cardiff, Wales, in early June, when the three-tiered process concludes.

“It would mean a lot,” Mann said by phone from Charlotte, where he trained for several weeks before the trials. “There’s no bigger stage; it’s as big as it gets. All of us want to be there at some point. I’d love that chance. I feel I’d be able to perform if given that chance.”

The most heartbreaking moment of Mann’s career got all tangled up with one of his best performances. At the deciding event of the 2008 Olympic selection, a World Cup in Augsburg, Germany, Mann produced one of the finest weekends of racing of his career when he finished sixth. When he got to the bottom of the course on his final run, he felt ecstatic. A U.S. rival, Brett Heyl, earned 15th place, out of the race for the Olympic team slot.

Yet two-time Olympian Scott Parsons of Bethesda finished third overall. The surprising bronze medal allowed Parsons to snatch the lone slot for the Beijing Games.

“It was really down to the wire,” Mann said. “It was tough. I was 25. I had a really good race, a really good season and it didn’t work out.”

Mann, a native of Woodstock, Vt., didn’t mope for long. He took a couple of months to clear his head and let an elbow injury heal. Then he got back in the water, determined to continue his Olympic quest — with one caveat. He wanted to make sure he didn’t stake his entire self-worth on his third attempt. He made himself two goals for 2012: Win an Olympic team berth and earn a master’s degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

“I wanted to make sure I was advancing in other areas,” he said.

Mann’s plan necessitated nearly as many rides on the Metro back and forth to George Washington, where he attended classes and studied most evenings, as daily practice runs on the feeder canal to the Potomac River.

“It’s definitely been a tough balance,” he said. “It was always a challenge to make sure I was giving 100 percent to both [pursuits]. . . . I didn’t want to sacrifice either; both are very important to me.”

He has lived in the Brookmont neighborhood in Bethesda, a haven for serious paddlers, since he earned his undergraduate degree in political science and Spanish from Western Carolina University in 2006. He and his wife, Dana Benusova Mann, whom he married in 2010 and who competes for the Slovak national team, train together on the slalom course just a short stroll from their basement apartment.

Most of his days over the last four years have been busy. Some have gotten completely out of hand. A day after the U.S. slalom national team trials in Wassau, Wis., in early May 2010, Mann caught a 5 a.m. flight back to Washington. He went straight from the airport to the George Washington campus, where he spent eight hours studying for an international trade exam that night. He spent 12 to 15 hours each of the next two days preparing and finishing term papers for two other classes.

He didn’t feel particularly good about any of his performances during that four-day span. He barely qualified for the international team that traveled to World Cup events that summer, finishing in fourth place. And as a former 4.0 student at Western Carolina, he wanted to ace the exam and did not.

“I’m not going to do that again,” he said.

He doesn’t have to. He earned his degree last fall. Only one goal remains.

Three events — last year’s world championships, this week’s trials and the Cardiff race — will determine whether Mann, Parsons, Heyl or another man will represent the United States in London. On the women’s side, Caroline Queen and Ashley Nee, both of Darnestown, Md., will be seeking the lone spot in women’s kayak.

Entering the three-day trials that begin Thursday, Parsons holds a small advantage: He claimed two points by posting the highest U.S. finish at last year’s world championships. All of his competitors are at zero points. The next two events will be crucial.

“I’ve never doubted myself,” Mann said. “I always believed I could do it. Even in performances I just missed, I could see I could do it. . . . I was right there.”