An Olympian’s double life

Sophomore Brett Heyl never lived in Thurston or the Hall on Virginia Avenue. He rarely dines in J Street and does not frequent night spots near campus. Around here, one might say he has not had the typical “GW experience.”

Then again, Heyl isn’t a typical student. He is a world class K-1 kayaker, a role that requires him to live just a tad bit differently than most college kids. A member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic kayaking team, Heyl lives and trains in Bethesda, Md., and commutes into the District each morning to attend classes.

This fall, he will combine schoolwork, training, and a job – which may sound overwhelming to some, but not to Heyl.

“You have to make sure you strike a balance between your sanity and your workload,” he said. “If you don’t enjoy (life), it’s all for naught.”

After competing in the Olympic Games last month, the 22-year-old Heyl is back at GW for the first time since 2002, when he began training full-time. He has completed three semesters since arriving at GW in 2000.

After a month break from competition, he paddled in the U.S. Kayaking National Championships last weekend in Dickerson, Md.

Heyl does not seem to mind the daily grind of coming into the city from Bethesda. Plus, he said he would not want to expose a GW roommate to his “stinky wet gear.” The scent of his gear aside, he certainly enjoys the sport, which he picked up at age nine while growing up in Vermont. He also played soccer growing up, and now plays tennis for fun.

When asked if he would consider competing for GW’s rowing team, he shook his head.

“I get up early enough already,” said Heyl, who fits in dry-land workouts, classes and kayaking daily.

Paddling at a high level is not easy, especially because Heyl supports himself financially. He estimates his gear and travel expenses total $25,000 a year. To help offset the high costs, Heyl receives financial aid from the University and plans to work at Home Depot, a company with a special program to employ Olympic athletes.

Despite financial and time constraints, Heyl said he never considered dropping out of college. His situation is unique, as he is the only member of the U.S. Kayaking team currently in college.

“(Brett’s) not (going to college) just to get through,” Heyl’s father Mike said. “He wants to finish GW.”

Brett, Mike Heyl said, was offered scholarships at University of North Carolina-Charlotte and Georgia Tech but never considered changing schools. That focus, Mike said, has developed over the years.

Since he was 14 years old, Brett said he has been training and competing with older kayakers in various countries. He has spent time in Australia and the Czech Republic.

However, Brett admits that it is tough being back at school after spending the past month in Athens. He finished 15th overall in the K-1 race, a one-day event.

Regardless of the result, he said he still had the time of his life.

“It’s hard,” Brett said. “At the Olympics you have no responsibilities except performing well. But I mean it’s not all that bad.”

Heyl’s Olympic dreams are not over. He said he has been improving every year and is shooting to make a strong run in the 2008 games.

But now, he’s trying to focus on his schoolwork a bit, not to mention catching up on some D.C. nightlife.

“I’m a little lacking on that,” he said smiling.

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