If not for a twig that got stuck in his dad's lawnmower, Scott Parsons may not be going to the Olympics.
The opening chapter in one of the most unusual stories of the Athens Summer Games was written in Sylvania in September of 1984.
Strange as it may seem, it helps explain how Parsons - a 1997 graduate of St. John's Jesuit High School and the two-time defending national champion in whitewater kayaking - got involved in the sport when the only whitewater in the Toledo area comes in November when Nor'easters blow in off Lake Erie.
"It's a true story," Parsons said. "It's pretty wild."
Scott was 5 when his dad Bill was outside cutting the lawn in their Grove Bell neighborhood. Bill had already made plans to take his oldest son Brian, then 15, on a recreational kayaking trip to Pennsylvania. But first he had to take care of the yard.
While Bill - an industrial engineer now in his 35th year with Owens Corning - was operating his Toro in the days before safety handles, a branch became lodged in the space between the belt and pulley on the top of the machine. He attempted to pull it out, but in the process managed to catch his left hand.
The cuts and resulting stitches forced a change of plans. Bill couldn't paddle.
"That should have been one of David Letterman's Stupid People Tricks," Bill says today.
While recuperating and watching television news, Bill saw a story of a man-made whitewater kayaking course that had been built in what once was an old mill run in South Bend, Ind. The pair decided to go to watch a slalom race.
It was love at first sight for the teenager, and that weekend dad bought his
son a racing kayak.
"The four of us would go to races," said mom Mary, a nurse, referring to herself, Bill and sons Brian and Scott. "While Brian made his runs, Scotty would play with his toys in the water and watch. One day he said, 'I'd like to get in a boat.'●"
The future Olympian was all of 7 years old.
By the time he was 13, Scott, then a 14-and-under national champion, was featured in a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated for Kids.
"It always seemed like something I wanted to do," Scott said. "It just always felt very natural and normal."
In between, father and son would watch technique videos and then make trips to Olander Park, where Scott practiced on still water.
When the youngster needed whitewater, mom and dad would pack up the car and head out of town. Unless of course, the good Lord was willing and the creek did rise.
When the water was high enough, Scott and Bill would get up at 6:30 a.m., pack up the gear and walk to Ten Mile Creek near their home. The father would string ropes across the bank and hang poles so that his son could practice turning around gates.
"I remember those days very well," Scott said. "It was usually pretty cold. We'd stay out a couple of hours, go home and warm up and then do it the next day.
"You've got to do what you have to do to get your training time in. It's definitely not very glamorous, but it teaches you good lessons and it makes for great stories later."
The next chapter in Parsons' book comes in just over two weeks in Athens, where the eight-time member of the U.S. National Team, now 25, is considered a candidate for a medal in the slalom competition. USA Today projects him to win a bronze.
Parsons finished fifth in the World Cup race held on the Olympic site in April. He was .68 of a second behind defending world champion and gold medal favorite Fabian Lefevre after the semifinals. Parsons then incurred a two-second penalty in his final run, costing him a bronze medal.
Twenty-three kayakers will participate in Athens on Aug. 19 and 20, sitting in their boat, traveling the 300-meter course in a race against the clock.
"When I started, I didn't think about the Olympics," said Scott, whose brother Brian is now the program director for USA Canoe/Kayak's sprint and slalom teams. "I just wanted to kayak. About 1994 or 1995, I started thinking about it, but it was never motivation. By 1998 I started thinking, 'If I keep doing this, I could make the Olympics.'
"It's wild when you think about it, a kayaker from Toledo in the Olympics. It's the Olympics and there's so much support for us from people in the U.S. It's really great to be able to represent everybody back home. It kind of makes you think, 'All of my hard work and everything my parents have done has finally paid off.'●"
To think, it all began 20 years ago with a lawn mower and some stitches.
It may have been the kindest cut of all.
"I'm thankful for that twig," Scott said with a laugh. "I'm just glad the twig was there."
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