Montgomery Co. kayaker hopes third Olympics will be the charm

Scott Parsons competes in the men's K-1 slalom competition at the U.S. Olympic trials in Charlotte, N.C.
Scott Parsons competes in the men's K-1 slalom competition at the U.S. Olympic trials in Charlotte, N.C. (Getty Images)

Scott Parsons keeps going.

Long after the older brother he idolized growing up in Ohio quit his own competitive kayak racing career, long after the best friend he met through their kayaking families did the same, Parsons is like Peter Pan in a wet suit, tucked inside a polyethylene hull, paddling away on the Potomac River.

Parsons, 33, will be going to his third straight Olympic Games this month in London, trying to build on the sixth-place finish in the men's K-1 slalom competition in Athens eight years ago while hoping to erase the disappointment of failing to qualify for the final in Bejing in 2008.

Before a recent early-morning training session, Parsons reflected on his first two Olympics: "In Athens I was young and didn't know what to expect going in. Up until then, I had had some moderate success. To be sixth at the Olympics was pretty incredible to me.

"I don't know if I was capable of winning a medal or not there. Just the whole experience was new and I was naive. It was fun. Maybe it's not the most competitive thing to say, but I don't know if I really cared if I was that close to a medal or not. I was pretty excited to have the experience."

The expectations changed drastically going into China. Parsons not only won medals in a few World Cup slalom events in the intervening four years, but he also medaled in a test event on the course in Beijing before the Olympics.

Parsons acknowledges now that he succumbed to "a bit of pressure" that he — and others — put on his shoulders heading into Beijing. He was eliminated after he couldn't negotiate the next-to-last of the 21 poles kayakers are required to squeeze through in the approximately 90-second race.

"There were expectations that the medal was pretty achievable," he said. "While the experience was incredible and I wouldn't change anything about it, the race wasn't too much fun and I wasn't able to enjoy myself. I need to have a little more fun and enjoy myself in order to really have a good performance.

"I guess I'm thankful for a way for that experience and fortunate to be on the 2012 team. I think it taught me a lesson on how to go into London and where to mentally be for the race. I had two very different experiences in Athens and Beijing, and something a little more in the middle for London will hopefully set me up for a good performance."

Bill Parsons, whose discovery of a flier offering kayaking lessons at a club in Toledo led to his family's nearly 30-year involvement in the sport, said he is not surprised his younger son has continued paddling competitively after Bejing.

"He's pretty low-key, and I think he was devastated after what happened. A lot of people, myself included, would have thrown in the towel, but he works as hard as anybody," said the elder Parsons, who recently retired as an industrial engineer. "He's motivated and he's dedicated, and I think that's what kept him going."

Scott Parsons stopped training for a few months after the 2008 Olympics and started thinking about moving on with the rest of his life — as brother Brian, 10 years his senior, did after failing to earn a spot on the 1996 Olympic team and his best friend, Josh Russell, did after getting married and having three children.

After Beijing, Parsons returned to Maryland, where he followed his brother when he finished high school. The Brookmont community, which borders the Potomac, has been kayak-crazy since the 1970s and Parsons felt comfort in the cramped basement apartment where he and his wife, Lauren Bixby, have lived for the past eight years. They have been together for 10 years and married for 21/2.

Parsons concedes that the financial challenges can be difficult, but he credits the support of his wife.

"To be honest, everything else is not too big of a deal," he said. "I love the sport and the hard work just goes along with that. I like pushing myself and seeing what I'm physically capable of, and mentally it's the same thing. I like being in tough situations and seeing if I can push through."

When the two decided to run a half-marathon in early 2010, and later that year in the Marine Corps Marathon, it helped Parsons get back into a training regimen.

"Long-distance events like that are probably detrimental to a sport as short as ours," Parsons said. "You kind of want to always work on your fast-twitch ability and muscle, and running for 31/2 hours at a slow pace is undoing a lot of that work."

Bixby, a competitive kayaker until shoulder surgery derailed her Olympic dreams at age 16, now teaches special education at a Montgomery County high school. While her husband receives a small stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee and has had a few part-time jobs — including one at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — his love for the sport has kept him going.

So has his wife.

"I really love and I can see how much he loves the sport and how much passion he has," Bixby said before going out to train with her husband. "When you see that in somebody, I don't know how you can't be supportive of that."

Bill Parsons, who once coached Bixby, said he credits his daughter-in-law with helping Scott Parsons keep his Olympic dream alive.

"They are really soul mates, and she's out there with every step of the way," he said.

Since securing a spot in the men's K-1 slalom event at the Olympic trials in Charlotte, N.C., in April, Parsons has been out on the Potomac several times a week. Though not considered as ancient in kayaking as Dara Torres was at age 41 in swimming during the Olympics four years ago, Parsons is no longer the up-and-coming star he was in Athens or the established talent he was going into Beijing.

"People are starting to peak a little younger now, but experience still plays a huge role," Parsons said. "The average age of people finishing in the top 10 is a little younger than it's been before, but especially in a race like the Olympics, it's good to be a little more experienced. Either totally naive and outrageously confident or experienced and knowing how to deal with the pressure. It can be on either end."

Parsons doesn't dwell on the mistake he made in Beijing, but he can't forget it either. It has pushed him for the past four years — through training in the dead of winter, as well as a recent heat wave — and will be with him once he arrives in London. He doesn't know what would have happened if he would have qualified for the 2008 final.

"That's a good question," Parsons said. "My guess is that even if I had made the final in Beijing, even though I probably didn't know it at the time, I think there is probably a decent chance that I'd probably be doing the sport now. I'm not sure at what level I guess. But that's the thing about kayaking. I'll never stop after I'm done competing. I'll come out and enjoy it recreationally."


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