EAGLE COUNTY — Just when the season is all but over for most boaters, six High Country rafters are gearing up for their biggest river venture of the year.
Low flowing rivers and a chilly fall haven’t put a damper on training for the U.S. Men’s Rafting Team, a crew of six hailing from Eagle County, Breckenridge and Carbondale. The Vail Valley has been home to the national champion team 12 times, and many of those years, the team has gone on to compete at the World Championships. This year is no exception, and the team (dubbed Team Behind the Eight Ball), is headed for New Zealand on Nov. 13 to compete against the world’s best in rafting.
“There are 35 international teams at the competition. It’s a pretty amazing event,” said team member John Mark Seelig. “We’re incredibly excited that it’s in New Zealand. For a lot of these guys doing it for a long time, they’re just ecstatic. The championships have been in Bosnia, Costa Rica and Korea, but New Zealand’s North Island has some of the most sought-after rivers in the world.”
Unlike some other sporting events, anyone can put together a rafting team and compete at the national championships. The winner from nationals then has the opportunity to go to worlds.
In some countries, where rafting is a bit more popular, teams are fully sponsored, train full-time and even have access to Olympic training facilities.
In the U.S., not so much — the team consists of a group of friends who loved to paddle, and they pay their own way to competitions. Amazingly, they stack up quite well against rafting powerhouses, taking podium finishes in the head-to-head events and finishing top 7 in the sprint and downriver events. Their goal overall this year is to finish in the top four.
Past years, the team has handily taken the national title, but a team from Breckenridge gave Team Behind the Eight Ball a good run for the championship this year, said Seelig. For the world’s competition, they even drafted Breck member Matt Norfleet as part of the team.
Captain Chris “Mongo” Reeder, Seelig, Jordan Kurt, Andrew Bishop and Seth Mason round out the rest of the crew. Reeder is the longest-standing member of the team, logging more than a decade as part of Team Behind the Eight Ball. The level of competition has definitely increased at the World Championships over the last decade, he said.
“Now there’s a number of fully pro teams sponsored by big corporations (in other countries). That’s kind of taken it to another level,” said Reeder. “For six dudes from Vail with a boat, it takes a lot of commitment to get to that level.”
Seelig, the owner of Lakota Guides, joined the team for the first time this year, joining what was originally a team mostly associated with Timberline Tours.
“We have a very good relationship even though (Timberline and Lakota) are business competitors,” said Seelig. “It’s pretty crazy to have one of the owners of Timberline (Reeder) and myself sitting in the back of the boat together.”
In top shape
The team has been training for its biggest race of the season while it’s “off-season” in Eagle County, meaning the team members have to get creative with their workouts.
Topper Hagerman, of Axis Sports Medicine, has been the team’s longtime trainer, constructing a training regimen for the crew. They practice four days a week on the water and one day on their own doing cardio and strength work.
Much of the time is spent on the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon or at the Dotsero water skiing facility.
“A lot of it is interval training. We put a bungee on the back of the boat and do resistance training. We paddle in a lake, kind of like hamsters, and we do some sprint practice and set up some slalom courses,” said Seelig.
Training is centered around both developing both the skills to paddle as a team — Reeder loosely likens it to synchronized swimming on a class V rapid — and getting in shape as individuals to compete. Hagerman said they’re looking strong and credits the team for its dedication.
“It’s been amazing working with them,” Hagerman said. “It’s obviously for the love of the sport. They don’t have any big sponsorships, They all have full-time jobs and train when they can.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are 35 international teams at the competition. It’s a pretty amazing event,” said team member John Mark Seelig. “We’re incredibly excited that it’s in New Zealand. For a lot of these guys doing it for a long time, they’re just ecstatic.