LYNN NEARY, host:
Over the next few months, we're going to introduce you to some of the athletes who are trying to make it to the 2008 Summer Olympics. Only a handful of Americans in each sport will be going to Beijing. And the selection process can pit long-time friends and teammates against each other, as NPR's Adam Hochberg found out when he visited two kayakers who are vying to return to the games.
ADAM HOCHBERG: Ask Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons how many years they've known each other, and they start doing arithmetic in their heads.
Mr. SCOTT PARSONS (Kayaker): I think 15-ish.
HOCHBERG: Is that right?
Mr. PARSONS: We spent the whole summer together since I was 13. So what's that? Fifteen, 16 years?
Mr. BRETT HEYL (Kayaker): Yeah, 15 at the very minimum.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOCHBERG: Heyl and Parsons' friendship is rooted in their passion for whitewater slalom kayaking, a fast-paced sport where they paddle one-person boats through a series of gates on a rushing river.
(Soundbite of flowing water)
HOCHBERG: Though Heyl grew up in Vermont and Parsons in Ohio, they paddled together at youth events, on the U.S. national team, and finally 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 Parsons and Heyl had worked toward since their boyhood summers on the water.
Mr. PARSONS: 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.
Mr. HEYL: Yeah, I mean, it was great for me, because, I mean, he was the first boat, so I had to kind of squeak in second. But both of us, as soon as we finished our run we got out of our boat and ran up to cheer the other person on.
HOCHBERG: Now, the two friends are preparing again for the Olympics, practicing at a whitewater training center in North Carolina.
Unidentified Man: Three, two, one, go.
(Soundbite of water splashing)
HOCHBERG: 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 Brett Heyl knows it means he may be staying home this summer.
Mr. HEYL: I think it's unfortunate, you know, because whichever one of us doesn't come out on top, it'll be a rough couple months. 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, you know, it's a shattering of your dreams.
HOCHBERG: Still, despite what's at stake, the two athletes say they've made a pact, as they and about two dozen other kayakers compete this spring for that lone spot in Beijing. Parsons says they've agreed that no matter what happens, they won't let their friendship suffer.
Mr. PARSONS: What I really like about our relationship - especially this year, like, going for one spot - we can 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.
Mr. HEYL: Yeah. Like he said, it's nice because we've been doing this together for so long. Like, if he ends up going, I know he deserves it, and I want to see him race well, too.
Mr. SILVAN POBERAJ (Kayak Coach): Just get right of the center of the boat.
Mr. HEYL: You want to start in the middle and then jump.
HOCHBERG: The respect between Parsons and Heyl comes as something of a relief to their coach, Silvan Poberaj, a Slovenian who's 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, and he praises the way they're handling themselves.
Mr. POBERAJ: Athletes in this kind of situation, pretty often that in other teams, they sort of grow apart. But luckily, I think they work together very well, and that's a strength that can help both of them.
HOCHBERG: 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 promise that whoever doesn't go to the Olympics will celebrate the American who does.
Adam Hochberg, NPR News.