Locals win national rafting title
SALIDA — Hailing from Eagle County, the 9 Ball team of whitewater rafters won the six-person national championships Saturday. In addition to the glory of calling themselves the best in the U.S., the win also qualifies the locals to compete in the 2017 World Championships on the Yoshino River in Japan.
“It was the best competition we have ever had,” said 9 Ball team captain John Mark Seelig. “There were three unbelievable teams fighting for it this year.”
All three of those teams are from Colorado, with the second-place Ark Sharks hailing mostly from Summit County and the third-place Sage Outdoor Adventures team also calling Eagle County home.
On the women’s side, the Summit County-based Colorado Women’s Raft Team narrowly edged out team Ripple Effect, which consists of paddlers from Eagle County, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
With so many Colorado paddlers making their way into the top podium spots at nationals, it will be fitting to see Colorado represent the U.S. on both the men’s and women’s side at the world championships, said Ripple Effect team captain Jess Mason.
“Everybody did such a great job,” Mason said. “The winners were really beautiful to watch, especially in the slalom.”
14 GATES, ALL VISIBLE
The championships were part of Salida’s popular FibArk festival; competition took place Thursday through Saturday with a head-to-head race, a time trial, a slalom and a downriver sprint. Points were earned in each competition, the sum of which determined the championship.
The slalom was watched by thousands as crowds gathered on the banks of the Arkansas at the Salida Whitewater Park to see the action.
“It was really a first-class slalom, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said Jeremiah Peck, a member of the Ark Sharks who helped organize the event. “I’ve been to slaloms where people are watching with binoculars from a bridge a mile a way to see one gate. Here we had 14 gates and you could see all of them from the whitewater park.”
After being defeated by the 9 Ballers in head-to-head and time trial competitions, Peck and the Ark Sharks won the slalom, earning a better position in the downriver race. The downriver was the fourth and final competition and had the potential to determine the championships as competitors could earn more points in that race than any of the others. A half-hour behemoth of a paddle, it came down to a sprint to the finish, with the 9 Ballers edging out the Ark Sharks by less than 10 seconds.
“It was a heart breaker,” said Peck. “But really fun racing. They were taunting us, saying ‘they’re getting tired.’ We locked up our boats three or four times so our whole right side and their whole left side couldn’t paddle.”
Peck said as the Ark Sharks knew they couldn’t keep up with the 9 Ballers’ endurance on the flat sections, locking up their boats was going to be important if they were to keep the race close.
“That’s what I love about the downriver, there’s a lot of strategy involved,” he said. “We raced our race and gave it our all, there’s not much else we could do.”
LOCAL WOMEN WIN DOWNRIVER
Team Ripple Effect also came away victorious in the downriver, but as the Colorado Women’s Raft Team won the other events, it wasn’t enough to claim the victory. Encouraging for them, however, is the fact that the national championships was their first time paddling together.
“It was a pretty amazing feeling for all of us,” Mason said of winning the downriver.
They were about a minute ahead of Colorado Women’s Raft Team, the second-place finishers on the day.
“We started last and passed four boats along the stretch,” Mason said. “We just let people get tired dogging it out in front of us and we’d wait till they looked like they were completely dogging and we’d just slide around them. It was a really fun race.”
Eagle County athletes Gretchen Reeves and Jody Etters are members of team Ripple Effect, as well as Misty Cummings from Glenwood Springs. The rest of the team, including Mason, Yode Borg, Hattie Johnson and endurance athlete Sari Anderson are from Carbondale.
Anderson joined team Ripple Effect recently for her first foray into the world of competitive whitewater rafting. The champion ski mountaineering racer and mountain biker said compared to some of the other tests of stamina she has endured over the years, the downriver sprint felt short.
“The downriver for me was way more fun,” she said.
‘BEST WEEKEND OF MY LIFE’
It was also the first time competing on the national level for third-place finishers Sage Outdoor Adventures.
Under the leadership of local athlete Cole Bangert, the upstart rafters wanted to test their skills against the best in the country, and took the opportunity to compete on the nearby Arkansas.
“We had no idea what to expect coming in,” said team member Keith Engelmeyer.
The team has been paddling together since April.
“We didn’t think we’d get as close to the top two teams as we did,” said team member Wes Zittel. “Now we’re excited.”
Fourth place was team Rage Cage out of East Tennessee.
“We’re a bunch of country boys, and got a chance to come out here,” said Rage Cage member Alex Wilson. “I love the Smokey Mountains, but when I saw the Rocky Mountains I fell in love all over again.”
It was Wilson’s first time crossing the Mississippi River. As soon as he got to Colorado, he decided he had to move.
“I applied for a job at McDonald’s, Wal-Mart — anywhere I saw with a hiring sign,” she said.
He ended up finding an offer for work as a whitewater rafting guide.
“I’m going back just to put in my two weeks notice, then I’m turning around and heading right back,” Wilson said. “This has been the best weekend of my life.”
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