Whitewater spectacular begins Thursday
EAGLE COUNTY — The renowned FIBArk festival doubles as the whitewater rafting national championships this year, and several locals will paddling for a shot at the gold.
The six-person whitewater rafting championships are comprised of a downriver sprint, a slalom, a head-to-head battle and a time trial, beginning today. The winning team will represent Team USA at the six-person whitewater rafting world championships in October on the Yoshino River in Japan.
Many of the competitors headed to the Arkansas River to race today also competed in the four-person national championships in Oregon in April. Eagle County racers Team 9 Ball came away victorious, edging out their rivals the Ark Sharks from Summit County.
This weekend, the Ark Sharks and the Team 9 Ball will battle it out again on the Arkansas River, from which the Sharks derive their name. Ark Sharks Team Member Jeremiah Peck says it will be an on-water spectacular not to be missed — especially Friday’s slalom at the Salida Whitewater Park.
“This year’s nationals is going to be one of the best yet,” Peck said. “We’re expecting five- to ten-thousand people; we’re going to have the most boats competing ever in USRA history and on top of that, we’ve made some improvements and will have one of the most legit slalom courses that we’ve ever had at a national event, just with the technicality of it and the professionalism of how the course is set up, making use of the Salida Whitewater Park.”
The competition has been tight between the locals on the Ark Sharks and Team 9 Ball throughout the last couple of years. If a gambler were to make a bet on the top-two finishing teams on the Arkansas this weekend, the smart money would be on the teams that will be competing on their home waters.
Who to bet on in the women’s realm, however, will be a bit of a crapshoot, says John Mark Seelig with Team 9 Ball.
“The women’s competition is really where it’s at,” he said. “There’s going to be a bunch of really good women’s teams at the competition … There’s a team from the Arkansas Valley who will be at home in those waters, a team from Denver who has won before, and a local team with some athletes from Eagle County and Carbondale captained by the former national team captain.”
That former national team captain, Carbondale’s Jess Mason, says there will be more than just the Colorado teams to contend with.
“There’s a team coming from Oregon who competed in the (four-person) national championships, and there’s a team coming in from West Virginia who are all guides on the Gauley River out there,” Mason said. “We will definitely have a lot of competition and we’ll be the newbies.”
Mason learned to raft on the Gauley prior to moving to Colorado. She went on to compete in world-championship events Korea, Bosnia, Holland and Costa Rica. After having children, she got away from the sport for a few years, but is now determined to get back into it full-on. In addition to several other moms, there will be a few local athletes on the team who — while they don’t have a lot of paddling experience — are known for their prowess in endurance sports. Among them is Eagle County’s Gretchen Reeves.
“We’re there to crank and race and stir it up and see what happens,” Reeves said. “It’s a team of athletes, not just rafters. Everybody is fit and everybody works hard … but we haven’t had a competition yet, so I’m really interested to see how we do.”
Reeves and other members of the team have been paddling a couple days per week on the Eagle River, which reached its peak on Saturday. Many of the athletes have competed in different events around the world, but none have been to the Yoshino River.
“I saw a video of the river in Japan and it looks amazing,” Reeves said. “We want to go there.”