After hearing cheers in Athens and absorbing the spectacle that is the Olympics, kayaker Scott Parsons wasn't sure he wanted to do it again. So he took a year off, paddling just once a day to stay in shape and have fun on the water.
The passion returned, and the Bethesda resident is on his way to Beijing, the anchor of a team that consists of a 38-year-old woman dropped from the British team, two gee-whiz teens and boyhood friends from Pennsylvania who are finding success paddling together as one, and a rail-thin Georgian with a literary bent who sets himself apart from the crowd with black-painted fingernails and a tasteful touch of mascara.
But make no mistake, this is Parsons' team and Parsons' time.
"Right now, Scott Parsons is in his prime," says Casey Eichfeld, a high school senior who paddles a two-man canoe with Ricky Powell. "It's fun to watch him throw the boat around."
Whitewater slalom is like slalom skiing, with one major difference: The mountain under the paddler fights back as he or she tries to negotiate a course with about 20 gates hanging from wires over the water. Some gates are entered from the upstream side, others require the paddler to reverse course and battle the current to thread the gate from downstream side. Each run is timed and paddlers are penalized each time they touch the gate.
Parsons, 29, goes into the Summer Games ranked ninth in the world with a bronze World Cup medal this season on his resume. His sixth-place finish at the Athens Olympics gives him a buffer against expectations sure to build in Beijing.
"Scotty is in a good place. He's right in the zone to win a medal at the Olympics," says Matt Taylor, five-time U.S. whitewater canoe champion and two-time Olympian. "He's a great ballast for that team."
But it's hard to pull anything resembling a prediction from the soft-spoken athlete with the quick smile and quicker wit.
Dressed one day last week in red pants, black shirt and a thin black tie, Parsons looked more like an art school graduate student than someone who finds peace in the boiling waters of a twisting, quarter-mile slalom course.
He worries about the teammates he beat to make the U.S. squad, about the nation's obsession with winning gold and about making sure he is supportive of his girlfriend's efforts to finish her master's degree in special education at the University of Maryland.
Parsons acknowledges that he struggled with the decision to "commit four more years to the Olympics just for one more race."
"It's a drain, and it's easy to fall into that hype that it's all just about the Olympics, and I guess I was just sort of rejecting that as well," he says.
Then the international federation that governs the sport reduced the minimum size of the boats from 4 meters to 3.5 meters, opening the sport to a new generation of faster, more precise boats.
"Whatever apathy I had was gone. I felt rejuvenated and excited to get out there," he says.
U.S. kayak coach Silvan Poberaj, a Slovenian who has guided the U.S. team since the early 1990s, jokes that Parsons' hiatus "was just enough."
Poberaj says his paddler's 10 years of international experience in major races and mental toughness made his return to the sport easier.
"He's a really good fighter. He never gives up even if he makes a mistake early on in the race. He would fight even harder, and often he comes back with a really good result," the coach says.
The selection of the Olympic whitewater team began in September at the world championships in Brazil, continued through team trials in Charlotte, N.C., in April and ended in Germany during the final World Cup earlier this month. In the end, Parsons beat longtime friend Brett Heyl and Scott Mann for the single spot.
"It can really help you because you learn to race again and again at a high level," Parsons says of the lengthy process. "But it also can be pretty draining, just wear on you. To avoid the latter, you really do get pretty good at racing consistently."
At the test event a year ago for Beijing's Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, Parsons won the bronze medal on a course he calls "hard and challenging."
"It's very muscular, but it can also favor the very precise, technical paddlers because you can't just muscle everything," Parsons explains. "Eventually your muscles are going to give out near the bottom of the course, so at some point during the run you hopefully have saved some energy through technique and precision."
The Olympic whitewater events will run Aug. 11-14.
His teammates, accustomed to competing before no more than a few hundred spectators and friends at best, are anxious to know what it's like to race with thousands of screaming fans lining the venue.
"I don't want to seem like an obnoxious know-it-all who's been there before. Nothing really can prepare them for what they'll experience," Parsons says. "My only advice is to enjoy the whole thing and go to the opening and closing ceremonies because you never know when you're going to get to go again."
He pauses and smiles. "I feel pretty fortunate that I get to go again."