A life on the river

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Every spring when the snow melts, and the gently rolling waters of the Yampa River begin to swell to capacity, local paddlers head to the shores of Dr. Rich Weiss Park.

After today, a memorial of Steamboat's most famous paddler, Rich Weiss, will greet all who visit the park.

His form will forever watch over the cool mountain waters where the world-class kayaker's love of the sport of whitewater slalom racing was born.

Weiss drowned in 1997 at the age of 33 while kayaking with a friend on the White Salmon River in Washington state. Since then, friends, family, the Steamboat Springs Arts Council and the city of Steamboat Springs have worked hard to make a lasting tribute to him. That tribute, a sculpture by Tyler Richardella, will be unveiled at 10 a.m. today.

"I think it is neat," Weiss' longtime friend Tom Steitz said. "What I think is so special about this statue is that it came from friends and supporters and not some kind of political action where they just lay the money down."

It took three years for the $30,000 to be raised for the effort and for Richardella to complete the work.

"It's been a big honor for me to do something like this," Richardella said. "Richie was such a big part of Steamboat and it was an honor to be selected to do this work. I hope it will be appreciated by the family, who will be able to see it and touch it."

After Weiss' death the park was named in honor of the young man who grew up in the shadows of Ski Town U.S.A pursuing the beat of a different drummer.

While no one can argue that Steamboat is the birth place of countless Olympians the fact is most of them preferred skis over paddles.

Weiss changed all that.

"Steamboat has tons of Olympians," Tom Woods, a local paddler and friend of Weiss, said. "But Rich didn't follow the norm for a ski town."

However, Weiss did make it to the Olympics. Not just once, but twice.

The first time came in 1992 when he placed 16th in the slalom. The finish was respectable, but it was disappointing for Weiss.

He would have been in the running for a medal in Barcelona, but it was ruled that he had touched a gate during one of his preliminary runs. Videos proved that Weiss had not touched the gate later, but the judge's ruling at the time stood. The penalty dropped the local favorite out of medal contention.

"He got robbed twice," Steitz said. "Once in the Olympics and once at the World Championships. But he took it pretty much in stride that's just the type of guy he was."

Weiss' disposition earned him a coveted honor for sportsmanship that year, but not the Olympic trophy.

"I'm sure inside he was furious," friend Peter Van De Carr said. "But in public he would just say 'that's the way it is.'"

Weiss returned to the Olympics for a second time in 1996 and placed sixth at the Atlanta Games once again just missing a medal.

He hadn't officially retired from the sport but he did not try out for the team the following year.

Steitz said he remembers Weiss as a quiet, focused and intense young man.

"Whatever he did, he did 100 percent," Steitz said.

Steitz, who was on the American canoe and whitewater team from 1980-83 before becoming a Nordic combined ski coach, recalled cross country skiing with Weiss one time near Walton Peak.

"We had been skiing for a while and we were getting close to the peak, so I said to him, 'I'll race you to the top for a beer,'" Steitz said.

Weiss, Steitz said, thought about the proposition for a moment and then replied, 'I'll race you to the top, but not for a beer. That would be counter productive.'

"That's the type of guy he was. He was always dedicated to whatever he did," Steitz said. "He never let down."

That dedication was displayed when Weiss and Steitz spent the winter in Steamboat Springs chipping the ice away from the river in order to keep a channel open so that they could kayak.

"We were young and ambitious," Steitz said. "It didn't seem like it would be that hard to keep a channel open all winter in theory.

But it didn't take long to figure out that we were wrong. But once we started, neither one of us was going to give in."

Both Steitz and Woods said it wasn't uncommon for Weiss to be the first in the river each spring and the last one out each fall. The water flow, and cold temperatures didn't seem to matter to Weiss as long as he was paddling.

Weiss went to a military academy during high school and the Colorado School of Mines after that. He graduated and went on to get his Ph.D.

He had just started a new business, Weisswater Associates when he was killed.

The business was already starting to take off and had a bright future, Steitz said.

Weiss was married to wife, Rosie, and the couple was expecting the birth of son, River.

Weiss was the first American to win a medal in men's kayak at the World Championships when he took second in 1993 in Italy. In addition to his two Olympic appearances, Weiss was also successful on the World Cup circuit. He was third overall in the World Cup standings in 1991.

To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209 or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com.

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