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Black and whitewater

Tom Boyd

When Gypsum’s Mike Reid decided to put together a raft team, the goal was simple: to become the best team in the nation. Running gates, navigating rapids, or powering downriver, Reid knew Eagle County had the athletes he needed to make it happen.And Sept. 23, at the Gauley River Festival in West Virginia, it happened.”When we first started guiding, we got into racing a little bit, but we were always an average team,” Reid says. “We were tired of being average. So we looked around and we said who are the best paddlers in the Vail Valley, and I said I needed to go out and get them all on the same team.”With help from his friend Tom Olson, Reid brought in the help gearsmith Chris “Mongo” Reeder, who made a name for himself by notching the only rafting descent of Upper Death (which he accomplished with Timberline Tour’s Billy Mattison). Mongo, Olson and Reid, together with Todd Toledo, Sean Vierling, and Chip Carney, gave the team a winning combination.Then came the style. Decked out in all-black, all-bomber gear, the team picked up the name Behind the 8 Ball.”The boat’s jet black. If we’re winning a race, then everybody else is Behind the 8 Ball,” explains Olson. “And if we’re not winning, then we are.”Their success has given them a small cult following at river events, and fans are putting on black threads to show their appreciation for the homegrown team.This isn’t the first time Vail has produced a national champion team. The Team Colorado women’s team has won championships in the past (they placed third this year), and the former men’s championship team, Team Clear Creek, is based out of nearby Idaho Springs.”Colorado is leading the raft racing movement in a lot of ways,” says Mark Joffe, who is currently rafting’s leading man in the United States. Also based out of Colorado, Joffe’s Rapidpulse event production company hosts the U.S. Rafting Championships every year, and Joffe is an active member of the International Rafting Federation. “It’s fantastic to see the competition levels rising in rafting right now,” he says. “What it’s showing me is that the sport is growing a little bit, and it needs to grow a little bit more.”The reason the sport must grow, says Joffe, is so that teams like Behind the 8 Ball can win an all-expenses-paid trip to the World Rafting Championships. As it stands now, the team won $500 and the right to compete on the Vleata River in southern Czech Republic next Aug. 27-31. But they’re on their own when it comes to fundraising.The prize money in competitive rafting may be negligible, but Behind the 8 Ball doesn’t seem to mind. The team practiced three times a week on the Shoshone stretch of the Colorado River, and spent other days sprint-paddling across Nottingham Lake.Colorado now plays host to seven official raft races. The Clear Creek race is going into its third year, and a new race on Shoshone has helped give Colorado teams the competitive edge.For years, Team California and Clear Creek have dueled it out for top U.S. honors. But with the inception of Behind the 8 Ball, says Joffe, U.S. rafting has a higher set of expectations.”They’re going to have the best placement of a U.S. Team ever,” Joffe predicts.In the past, U.S. men’s teams have fared as well as sixth and as low as rock-bottom 13th. Great athletes have always manned the boats, but teamwork and lack of race experience have, um rocked the boat.Teamwork, says Reid, is built over years, not months. Staying together for the summer isn’t enough, especially when heading up against stiff competition from European competitors, who have a much larger, well-funded competitive rafting infrastructure.”Myself and Olson knew we had to get people who were going to be really committed to living in the valley for a long time,” Reid says. “And with Jon Wright right down the street, they were the national team and we could race against them every year.”For now, Behind the 8 Ball is ahead of the competition. But, no doubt, Wright and his fellow river rats are already planning a coup. Reid and his teammates say they plan on training and staying in shape all winter long in preparation for the beginning of the Colorado raft racing season next May, where they will take on Clear Creek once again.Tom Boyd is a freelance writer and paddler. He can be reached at (970) 390-1585 or tomboyd@vail.net.


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