It was a day of elation and deflation for the U.S. Slalom Team on Monday as, after a blistering first run that put him in third place out of the 21 countries competing, American K1 medal hope Scott Parsons cut upstream gate #20 a hair too close on his second run, incurring a 50-second penalty that knocked him out of the top 15 cut for the finals.
“I knew I hit a gate up on the top of the course so thought I had to push it a bit farther down,” a dejected Parsons told NBC sideline reporter Marty Snider immediately after the race. “Less than two seconds separated the 13 third through fourteenth spots, so I felt I had to make that up.”
Indeed, Parson’s first run of 84.91 on the course—deemed one of the fastest and most consistent in Olympic history—had him sitting in first place until runs by Germany’s Alexander Grimm and Solevnia’s Peter Kauzer (the only whitewater boat Slovenia qualified) relegated parsons to third after the first run.
That’s when the Yin/Yang of the Olympics struck home. With his family jubilant in the stands—including former U.S. team member Brian Parsons; mom, Mary; and father, Bill—Parsons’ head barely entered gate #20, causing a 50-second penalty to pop up on the Jumbotron screen.
“We couldn’t believe it when we saw it,” said NBC color commentator Joe Jacobi, winner of the C2 gold in Barcelona in 1992.
The infraction was so imperceptible that coaches Silvan Poberaj and Cathy Hearn filed a protest that, after further review, fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, the ears of U.S. C1-er Benn Fraker certainly weren’t deaf, as after his two runs he earned a 10th-place seed and the U.S. team’s sole berth in the finals, as he walked the course afterward with earphones readying for the next day’s event.
“Everyone knows that that can happen in this sport,” he said after the race. “But none of us thought it would happen to Scott.”
Fraker’s first run of 91.97, including a two-second penalty for a touch, put him in 11th place after his first attempt, with his second run of 87.47, nearly four and half seconds faster, securing his berth in the finals.
After an Opening Ceremony to end all Opening Ceremonies, the sixth-ever Olympic whitewater slalom events are set to shoot out of the gate on Monday, Aug. 11, at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park an hour out of Beijing.
The main storyline: how competitors will handle the course, one of the fastest, most consistent in Olympic history.
“The course is real complex,” says US Coach Cathy Hearn. “It will reward good paddlers. It will make athletes have to think and react, more so than just listening to their coaches.”
Adds US K1 paddler Scott Parsons, perhaps the US’s best shot at a medal: “It’s the best whitewater course in the world.”
Parsons – sporting patchwork brown and platinum blond hair beneath his helmet– will have his hands full against such paddlers as France’s Fabien Lefevre, who took the bronze in Athens; Great Britain’s Campbell Walsh, who took the silver in Athens; and Italy’s Daniele Molmenti. But the event is as wide open as China’s vast countryside. Four different athletes have won the last major world championships – Benoit Peschier of France winning the gold in Athens; Fabien Doerfler of Germany winning the gold at the 2005 World Championships; Italy’s Stefano Cipressi winning the gold at the 2006 World Championships; and France’s Sebastin Combot winning the gold at the 2007 World Championships – none of whom are competing in Beijing, thanks to new rules allowing only one boat from each country per category.
While three days of training have familiarized them with the pulsating course, no one will see the final gate lay-out, designed by former US team member Eric Giddens, until Sunday. And everyone is nervous about the course’s biggest drop affectionately known as Stir Fry, whose boils and unpredictable eddy lines could spell the difference between the podium and loser’s bracket in the race.
U.S. results aside, one key storyline to follow is four paddler’s quest for an unprecedented third gold-medal showing. French C-1er Tony Estranguet is shooting for his third gold medal in a row, after besting Mikal Martikan in both Sydney and Athens. The Czech C-2 twins of Peter and Pavol Hochschorner are in the same boat, also shooting for their third gold in a row. And for the women, all eyes are on the Czech Republic’s Stepanka Hilgertova, who won the gold in Atlanta in 1996 and again in Sydney in 2000. But to do so, she’ll have to get past Germany’s Jennifer Bongardt, whose appearance on the cover of Germany’s Playboy magazine in no way underscores her ability in a boat—she’s currently second in ICF standings behind Hilgertova.
Another key storyline: the changing of the guard on the U.S. team. Three of the team’s five paddlers this year are teenagers, with 19-year-old Benn Frakker earning the C1 spot and Casey Echfeld and Rick Powell, both 19 as well, earning the C-2 berth. By comparison, Parsons, at 29, could well be the Great Wall of China.
Still, it’s anyone’s race to win once out on the water.
“The course doesn’t really favor anyone,” says US Coach Silvan Poberaj, who spent one of the US Team’s training slots working with Parsons on boat position, practicing various moves on the course, and getting up to the speed racers will paddle at during the competition. “It should be a very good race.”
Despite the selection of the US Team not occurring until after the final World Cup event of the season July 7 in Augsburg, Poberaj feels his team is ready. “The process was the same as it was for Athens, except the event in Augsburg was held later,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to see the last race earlier, but five to six other countries also selected their team after Augsburg this year, and the swimming and track teams didn’t make their selections until July, either.”
The US team will also have plenty of support in the stands and network bays. Calling the shots for NBC are 1992 gold medalist Joe Jacobi, providing color for play-by-play by Tour de France announcer Craig Hummer; and announcing on site are Kent Ford and Lamar Simms. “The course is like the La Seu course on steroids,” says Jacobi, with C2 partner Scott Strausbaugh the U.S.’s only whitewater gold medalist.