Forever immortalized

Family, friends, community gather as statue of Rich Weiss is unveiled along banks of the Yampa

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— The world came to a standstill as Peter Van De Carr read his memories of the late Dr. Rich Weiss at the edge of the Yampa River. The blues playing in the background stopped. Bike riders and dog walkers paused to listen in. Even passing kayakers managed to struggle against the river's flow to watch as one of the greatest in their sport was remembered.

But it was Tyler Richardella's rendering of Weiss that froze time, captured it in bronze. He had stopped the waters of the mighty Yampa as it held its favorite son, breaking from its foamy embrace with a determined look on his face.

Old friends, family and locals applauded as Richardella, 24, and Weiss' son River, 3, uncovered the sculpture at Dr. Rich Weiss Park. Weiss, a two-time Olympian, drowned while kayaking the White Salmon River in Washington state in 1997.

"I just wish Rich was here," said his wife, Rosi, in a voice quivering with emotion. "He wouldn't believe it. He wouldn't want to be put on a pedestal; it's not his way at all.

"This is his home, this is where he did everything, where he grew up."

Rosi Weiss now lives in San Diego, a place with little to remind her of Rich. He could have put any of the other towns they were in as his hometown, she said, but he always put down Steamboat.

She had to explain to young River, who had never met his father, the concept of the event, framing it in a much softer light. He thought his father would actually be at the dedication.

But he remained poised in the gravity of the moment. He ran around, posing for pictures and testing the pond, sporting the same forehead-hugging bangs his father always had.

Weiss' former coach, Tom Steitz, was there. He chuckled as he recounted how he and Weiss would steal a City Market shopping cart every now and then and use it to drag their kayaks to the river. How they would make Weiss, "the kid who didn't have a driver's license," ride in the back of a pickup truck on kayaking trips to Buena Vista or Colorado Springs. If it would rain or get too cold, maybe they'd let him crawl up front with them. He chuckled again at the thought of the country's, and possibly the world's, greatest paddler ever, riding in the back of an uncovered pickup truck just for a chance to go kayaking.

There was Gilbert Chavez, Weiss' high school wrestling buddy who had driven with his wife, Maria, from Castle Rock. Even in high school, Weiss was an accomplished athlete and student. Even then, he stayed humble in the face of his achievements, a "fantastic guy." Didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't cuss. Clean as you can get. Dedicated, with an unbelievable work ethic. Never a harsh word to say.

For Van De Carr, who pushed the project from renaming the park to getting a statue raised Weiss was a hero, a best friend. A pioneer of kayaking in an area ruled by the land. It's Ski Town USA, but it's also Kayak Town USA, he said. He called numerous years he spent on the project since Weiss' death "a pleasurable process." What now? he asked. They had achieved a community goal, with the statue as their "artistic Stanley Cup." It's a bummer that it's over, he said.

There are the well-deserved hugs and handshakes for the artist, Tyler Richardella. He was commissioned to work on the piece four years ago, at the tender age of 20. Never mind the countless days of research, peering into the past through pictures of a man he had never met. Time spent watching kayakers to get a feel for the lifestyle. Conversations with Van De Carr and Steitz on technical details. Noticing how the slope of River's neck is so much like his father's.

"I wish I got to know him," Richardella said. "I feel like I do know him."

Never mind that he has also had to deal with heart and liver problems, probably caused by the steroids he took for crippling arthritis. But never mind that. Like any other artist, the moment begins to play on his nerves. Did I get his face right? Are they going to like it? Did I do a good enough job? Never mind that his first commissioned piece will be seen for generations to come in a popular public venue.

His mother and father, Leslie and Bob, purse their lips as he speaks to the crowd about his piece before they unveil it, thanking person after person for his or her help. His mother is overwhelmed with pride, never knowing during the four and a half years of the project if he would make it that far. A lot of pride, she said. It's kept Tyler going.

"While this is a memorial to Rich, this is an honor to you that you did this," said Harry Weintrob to Richardella. His son, Elliot, was on the 1992 Olympic Team with Weiss.

In the background, there are still kayak and open canoe races. Many cheer on the junior contest, with preteens braving the water in competition. They all win prizes. They close out the awards ceremony handing the first-ever Richard Weiss Cup given for "Excellence in River Life" to co-winners Sean Cavanagh and Kevin Dombey, who have raced all day to a draw.

For Van De Carr, who runs the event, the 21st Yampa River Festival may be his favorite, he said as the day closed out. Less money, he said, but truer to the small-town nature of the event. And the chance to honor a personal hero.

"This is a better world because he walked and paddled with us," he said at the dedication. "He was, in short, the best we had to give."

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