A light rain was falling, so two-time Olympic kayaker Scott Parsons tugged on a vinyl jersey before hauling his kayak down a steep hill that runs next to his rental apartment in Bethesda. He crossed the Clara Barton Parkway in his bare feet, walked gingerly down a gravel path, then slid his kayak into the Feeder Canal on the Potomac River to train. ¶ Seven years after his first retirement, and three years after his second, Parsons is back in his boat, driven once again by the nagging sense that he never got to finish his career properly. He finished sixth in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. He missed the final at the Beijing Games in 2008 after a crushing late penalty pushed him from third place to elimination. ¶ He looks to the 2012 Summer Games in London for an Olympic medal, and closure. He hopes, most of all, to find the validation and satisfaction missing on previous Olympic trips.
“I didn’t exactly know why I had to try again,” Parsons, 32, said. “There’s a big difference between quitting and retiring, and I didn’t want to quit. . . . I think my potential now is greater than it was five years ago.”
Parsons’s journey in and out of kayaking has featured so much mental and psychological wrangling he sometimes forgets about the purely athletic sacrifices. The hours of paddling, long workouts, dryland training, intense competition — none of that compares to the conflict that has waged for years in his own head.
Living for the eighth straight year in a tiny basement apartment in a huge home owned by somebody else, he has tried to weigh the toll his low-budget sport has inflicted against the possibility that a long-sought Olympic medal — and the childhood dream it would fulfill — might yet await. The calculation has been agonizing, and ever-changing.
“He knew his dream wasn’t realized in 2008,” said Lauren Bixby, whom Parsons married in 2009. “For better or worse, he’s put pretty much everything in his life on hold. Really, all of his effort has gone to this one thing. If it ended up being a failure, that would be really hard for him to take. And it would be hard for me to see him deal” with it.
It was Bixby, who teaches special education at Wheaton High, who urged him to try again. Parsons announced his parting with the sport just minutes after pulling himself and his kayak out of the whitewater on the Beijing course, his medal hopes extinguished after an inexplicable error during a qualifying run: He missed the 20th of 21 gates on the course.
Seventeen years after having made his first national team, Parsons went home to Bethesda and stewed. All that work for what? He felt certain he should get a job or go back to school. Yet his choices seemed limited in a bad economy. He had never been to college; the day he graduated from St. John’s Jesuit High in Sylvania, Ohio, he had driven to Washington to begin his professional kayaking career. He had worked part-time as a technician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but he never held a full-time job.
For months after Beijing, as his wife went to work every day, providing the income to pay their bills, he watched his waistline get bigger while his self-respect shrank. He felt paralyzed.
“I’m kind of embarrassed by that,” he said. “I wanted to stop [competing] and give life a try. It’s outrageously pathetic . . . that I didn’t have the courage to do that.”
In what amounted to dipping a toe back in the water, he decided to tackle a pair of uncustomary events, men’s single and double canoe, at the 2009 U.S. team trials. The endeavor gave him something to do without necessitating a decision or commitment. Canoes are harder to handle and not Parsons’s area of expertise, yet he and his partner Benn Fraker qualified to represent the United States at international events that summer.
Parsons, however, declined the invitation. Even after winning a spot, he could not be persuaded to travel to events.
“I didn’t want anything to do with competition,” he said.
A turning point came in the fall of 2010, when he ran the Marine Corps Marathon, finishing in 3 hours 44 minutes. Preparing for the race got him in excellent shape. The grueling running cleared his head. It also gave him and Bixby some serious time together, as she, too, ran the race.
For years, his competitions had, by necessity, driven them apart. They simply could not afford for her to attend most events, so she almost always stayed home. On the rare occasions she did accompany him, they slept in their car, rather than staying in a hotel.
Bixby, however, weathered those challenges better than she did her husband’s aimlessness after Beijing. He didn’t know what he should do, but she did. And so she told him, again and again.
“I know a lot of young professionals, and they were all a little worried,” she said. They said, “He needs to support you. He needs to get a job. But I’m not sure a lot of people really realize what it’s like to have a dream like that. . . . It’s so pure, and I admire it so much. How can you tell somebody not to accomplish their dream? . . . That’s not even a question for me.”
Her unapologetic resolve helped her husband, finally, yank himself out of his funk and back into his kayak.
“What I’ve learned is to embrace it as an opportunity, instead of ‘Woe is me because my wife and I are living in a basement apartment,’ ” he said. “I just decided to do it. This is kind of who I am, what makes me happy. My wife is way too supportive, way too cool, to put up with this crap from me . . . I couldn’t ask for a better partner.”
Suddenly fully committed, and feeling good again, Parsons began tangling with an old emotion: a sense of urgency. The Olympics, suddenly, were not so far away. The 2012 Olympic trials take place in Charlotte next April. He got back with his coach, Silvan Poberaj, and consulted with Brad DeWeese, a U.S. Olympic Committee sports physiologist. He realized he had his work cut out for him.
Parsons barely made it on to the U.S. team that traveled to the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships in September in Bratislava, Slovakia. He then finished in 15th place, a result that left him somewhere between disappointed and proud.
Though not good enough to send Parsons to the final, it allowed for one critical victory: He secured a spot in men’s single kayak for the Olympics next summer.
Having made sure that the spot is available, he now intends to win it.
“I’m enjoying each moment, but I also know the goal is to medal,” Parsons said. “There are plenty of reasons to do a sport and compete, other than just winning, but I really want to win right now. . . . Now, I think I understand why I want to win. Hopefully, I understand how to get there. We’ll see.”