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Scott Parsons competes in an Olympic test event at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park in August in Beijing.
Scott Parsons competes in an Olympic test event at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park in August in Beijing. Guang Niu/Getty Images
Kent Smith/Getty Images for Bank of America
Brett Heyl paddles down the rapids during the U.S. Whitewater Slalom Team Trials in North Carolina last year.
Brett Heyl paddles down the rapids during the U.S. Whitewater Slalom Team Trials in North Carolina last year. Kent Smith/Getty Images for Bank of America
The 2008 Summer Olympics are still months away, but some of America's top athletes are already engaged in tough competition to qualify to represent the United States in Beijing. The selection process can pit longtime friends and teammates against each other, as two kayakers who are vying to make a second trip to the games have found out.
Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons have known each other for at least 15 years. Their friendship is rooted in their passion for whitewater slalom kayaking — a fast-paced sport in which they paddle one-person boats through a series of gates on a rushing river.
Heyl grew up in Vermont and Parsons in Ohio, but they paddled together at youth events, on the U.S. national team and at the 2004 Olympics, when both were selected to represent the United States. That cemented their standing as America's top two kayakers in their class — and fulfilled a goal that Parsons and Heyl had worked toward since their boyhood summers on the water.
"Marching out in the opening ceremonies in Athens was, I mean, one of the most incredible feelings I've ever had, and being a part of a small community that gets to represent the U.S. at the Olympics is a pretty special thing," Parsons says.
Now, the two friends are preparing again for the Olympics, practicing at a whitewater training center in North Carolina. But unlike four years ago, Heyl and Parsons won't be going to the Olympics together.
Because of a change in Olympic rules, only one whitewater kayaker from each country can participate this year. The change is designed to allow more countries to compete, but Heyl knows it means he might be staying home this summer.
"I think it's unfortunate, because whichever one of us doesn't come out on top, it'll be a rough couple months," he says. "I mean, it's always been my dream to win an Olympic medal, you know, and for the last four years, it's been about getting back to the Olympics. You know, if I don't — it's overly dramatic to say — but ... it's a shattering of your dreams."
Despite what's at stake, the two athletes say they have made a pact as they — and about two dozen other kayakers — compete for that lone spot in Beijing. Parsons says they have agreed that they won't let their friendship suffer, no matter what happens.
"What I really like about our relationship — especially this year, like going for one spot — [is that] we could let a lot of petty things kind of spiral out of control, I guess, and we're sort of over that, and that's really nice," Parsons says.
Heyl says that because they have been competing together for so long, "if he ends up going, I know he deserves it, and I want to see him race well, too."
The respect between Parsons and Heyl comes as something of a relief to their coach, Silvan Poberaj, a Slovenian who has guided the U.S. team for 15 years. Though neither athlete won a medal four years ago, Poberaj says both are strong enough to win this year.
He praises the way they are handling themselves.
"Athletes in that kind of situation, pretty often in other teams, they sort of go apart. But luckily, I think they work together very well, and that's a strength that can help both of them," Poberaj says.
This year's Olympian will be determined based on the results of two upcoming competitions — one this month; one in June. Parsons is considered the current favorite because of his strong performance at last year's World Championships. But both he and Heyl promise that they will celebrate with whoever is selected to represent the United States in the Olympics.