Vail-based U.S. Whitewater Rafting team returns from world championships
VAIL – Rushing water does not wash away the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, even if it’s in a man-made river.
The Vail-based U.S. Whitewater Rafting teams are back from the world championships in the Netherlands, held for the first time on a man-made river – the Dutch Water Dreams whitewater park. It’s two hours away from Amsterdam and light years away from anything anyone had experienced before.
It’s also one of the first world championships run with four-person rafts. Competitive raft teams traditionally have six people in the boat.
The course is narrower and the man-made river runs faster, making it more challenging and spectator friendly because they get to see some honest-to-NASCAR aquatic crashes.
It’s all designed to attract the attention of the International Olympic Committee, with the goal of making rafting an Olympic sport by 2028, if not sooner.
“To make it an Olympic sport, you have to be able to do it anywhere, and not everywhere has whitewater rivers,” said Lisa Reeder, a member of the U.S. women’s team who works with Timberline Tours.
The Dutch solved that dilemma by building their own river. After all, countries build Olympic basketball arenas and hockey rinks all the time.
All kinds of unique activities are Olympic sports. Curling, anyone? How about Olympic bid rigging, bribing and kickbacks?
In fact, a Los Angeles attorney who represents an intergalactic yoga instructor traveled to Colorado Springs earlier this year, on his client’s behalf, to officially propose yoga as an Olympic sport. The Olympic committee listened with rapt attention.
And while rafting’s profile might run a little under the radar, it’s not that people don’t respect what these athletes are doing. They do. They just don’t know what it is.
“People keep asking, ‘You’re going where? To do what? People race rafts?’ We get that all the time,” Reeder said.
Yes, they race rafts and do it exceptionally well, as the Dutch fans could plainly see.
Spectators seem to love the Dutch Water Dreams park. They can run alongside the course and the river to see exactly what competitors are doing and hear what they’re saying. It can be inspiring when teams are winning but something south of a Sunday school lesson when teams have screwed up and are losing.
“It’s a much different experience than running in a remote river,” Reeder said. “We had some fans, some friends and some parents.”
Every two years, the world rafting championships will return to the Netherlands and Dutch Water Dreams and then travel the globe to remote rivers that like nothing better than to dash raft teams’ dreams to bits on massive boulders.
The world championships consist of four events.
In the time trial, you and your team race against the clock.
That sets the field for the next event – head to head sprint heats. It’s single elimination. You get lots of points for winning, not so many for not winning.
Then there’s the slalom. They set a slalom course, and teams get to practice it twice, but then race organizers change the course for the actual race. You get two runs, and the best run counts.
The last event is the downriver. You start in the lake that flows into the Dutch Water Dreams park. Eight boats launch in a mass start, and lots of pushing and jockeying ensues. Delicate sensibilities need not apply because they’ll get smacked with a paddle into a parallel universe. Teams paddle through a buoy course down the lake, come out of the water, run with their boats across the dock, up the stairs, over the volleyball court and down the river. It’s five or six laps.
“For anyone who saw us out at Nottingham Lake, thinking we were crazy because we were running around carrying our rafts, that’s why,” Reeder said. “We were training for our world championship competition.”
The training paid off.
The women finished with two bronze medals, one each in the downriver and the time trials. They finished fifth in the world
The men finished in the top five in every event and fourth in the world, one point out of third and a podium finish for the overall bronze medal.
This year’s worlds attracted more than 50 teams from 20 countries.
Rafting works like most international competitions not decided by the French figure-skating judge. You go to a national qualifying competition, and if you’re fast, you get to represent your country.
European countries have 20 to 30 teams trying to qualify, and they’re out there every weekend racing.
Some Japanese and Brazilian teams do this for a living.
Teva USA is the U.S. team’s first financial sponsor. Greg Kelchner founded Timberline Tours in 1971 and has helped for years, providing both financial backing and some of the racers. Many team members work for his Timberline Tours company. Teva International sponsored this year’s world rafting championships.
“Teva has long been a supporter of the national raft teams, and we’re proud to become their title sponsors,” said Joel Heath, Teva’s global marketing director. “Our brand has built its reputation on building the world’s best water footwear, and we’re excited that we can help two of the best whitewater raft teams achieve their goals, while they help us to continue to create great products.”
Mike Reid, men’s raft team captain, is a Teva believer.
“I’ve been wearing Tevas on the river for almost 15 years,” Reid said. “We’re incredibly grateful for Teva’s support.”
The local teams are headed for Costa Rica this fall and a pre-world championship competition.
In the meantime, the local team members were back in the country Sunday night. Most were back on the local rivers Monday morning.