El Chupacabra on top in raft cross
VAIL — Things are looking good for the 9 Ballers.
Three of the four paddlers on the national champion four-man whitewater rafting team found their way onto the podium at the GoPro Mountain Games two-man Raft Cross competition on Friday, which is exactly how they wanted to start off the weekend of competition on Gore Creek.
With water levels rising by the minute, competition was fierce in the Friday night event, a spectator friendly battle which uses Vail’s International Bridge as its finish line. Raft Cross pits four to five two-man raft teams against each other in a sprint down Gore Creek, where the paddlers must clear several gates along the way to the finish. Clearing a gate means turning the boat 180 degrees and paddling upstream while other teams attempt to bump their competitors out of the gate area. Missing a gate results in a disqualification.
The national champion team, known as team 9 Ball, was divided into two teams of two, with Jeremiah Williams and Robbie Prechtl defending their title as Team El Chupacabra, and John Marc Seelig and Bill Hoblitzell going by the handle The Whiskey Priests. They finished first and second Friday, respectively.
Both The Whiskey Priests and El Chupacabra were nearly taken out of the competition in the quarter and semifinal rounds.
“I had to swim once, almost twice,” Seeling said.
In semifinals, The Whiskey Priests came into the final gate with so much speed that the action of slowing down to turn the boat around and clear the gate tossed Seelig into the water.
“It almost happened again in finals, but my teammate Bill Hoblitzell saved me,” Seelig said.
During quarterfinals, Prechtl cracked his head against the pedestrian bridge that runs parallel to the International Bridge at the finish line. It was a hazard of the high water which he said wasn’t an issue in the Raft Cross competition of yesteryear.
“I was just dazed, looking at a guy holding a beer on the sidelines, thinking I wanted a drink of his beer,” Prechtl said. “Then Jeremiah said ‘paddle, paddle, paddle,’ and I thought ‘OK I gotta keep paddling.’”
FRIDAY NIGHT ACTION
This year marked the second year of Raft Cross having the Friday night time slot at the GoPro Mountain Games.
A premier event in the world of whitewater rafting, Seelig said the Mountain Games Raft Cross competition proved itself last year as being a spectator thrill worthy of such a notable spot on the program.
“Before, it kind of got lost in the mix on Sunday,” Seelig said. “Everybody always said ‘this is such a cool event,’ so they decided to put it on Friday night. It went well and they brought it back this year.”
The event also doubled as a warm up for next weekend’s six-man whitewater rafting national championships — the FibArk race — held in Buena Vista and Salida on the Arkansas River.
“We’ll try to take that momentum and go with it,” Prechtl said. “There was some good competition out there, we faced our opposition several times today.”
The third-place team was an international smorgasbord, aptly named EuroAsia, and also featuring the top-finishing woman on the day. A gender-neutral event, Natalia Gray, of Slovakia, joined Masayuki Yaco, of Japan, to round out the podium.