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Steamboat Springs What Steamboat Springs is for Nordic ski jumpers, the Vail Valley is becoming for whitewater raft racers.
The valley that cradles some of the country's top endurance athletes has produced the core of the U.S. Men's Whitewater Rafting Team since 2002 and the U.S. Women's Team since 2004.
But the popularity of the fringe sport that favors the fastest six-pack of raft fanatics - ones willing to paddle non-stop down miles of river where commercial trips rarely venture - has spread beyond state boundaries.
Tuesday night's 2007 U.S. Rafting Championships race saw competitors travel from as far as California and Oregon to attempt to dethrone the champions.
"Why? 'Cause this is nationals," Oregon Rafting Team's Bruce Reed said of the trip that took him the 1,275 miles from Colton, Ore., to the banks of the upper Arkansas River north of Buena Vista. The nationals race - one that normally is run in August down the steep Gore Canyon section of the Colorado River near Kremmling - was moved to the Arkansas and bumped up two months to accommodate the U.S. teams before their Friday departure for South Korea's Naerinchon River, site of the International Rafting Federation's World Rafting Championships, from June 27 to July 2.
Since the IRF worlds are held every other year, U.S. qualification for the worlds already was determined at the Gore Canyon race last August. Tuesday's race down the five-mile, Class IV Numbers section of the Arkansas was for bragging rights only.
For the men's team, who united under the professional guiding nucleus of the Vail-based outfitter Timberline Tours and races under the team name "Behind the 8 Ball," Tuesday night's downriver event was more like another practice opportunity before heading to worlds. Victory was a foregone conclusion.
"It's really hard for us to know how good we are," said 8 Ball's Chip Carney. "There's just not that many teams out here, so it will be a race for about a mile, and then we'll be off on our own."
It's easy for Carney to make that statement. His team (which includes Brent Redden, Olli Dose, Chris "Mongo" Reeder, Todd Toledo, Mike Reid and alternate Seth Kurt-Mason) raises an elite bar competitors have been unable to match since the team began competing in 2001. At the 2005 worlds, on Ecuador's Quijos River, the brawny team out-muscled the Canadian men to a win in the head-to-head sprint event (world competition includes a sprint, slalom and downriver event). After the victory, a pair of fifth-place finishes in the other two events earned the men bronze behind Russia and the Czech Republic for the best finish in U.S. race history, but one that only renewed their quest for perfection.
This means a rigorous off-season weight training and cardio program from former U.S. Ski Team trainer Topper Hagerman of the Howard Head Sports Medicine Center and on-boat training four days a week come spring.
"We started in April - as soon as the ice melted off the river, we were on it," Carney said.
The practice paid off. At the 7 p.m. evening start of the race atop the technical Numbers section, 8 Ball was paired with two other rafts in the first heat. Their custom, jet-black Sotar race boat accelerated under the rapid pulse of six powerful, synchronized strokes as the river did some pumping of its own at 2200 cubic feet per second - just shy of the commercial shutoff level that keeps rafts from squeezing under bridges on the steep, five-mile section that features seven numbered rapids.
"That was a great race," an onlooker joked as 8 Ball immediately gained a healthy lead after the first 100 yards which it would not give up. They won the race in 33 minutes, a full two minutes ahead of the next raft.
Although the Timberline Women, who winter in the Vail Valley, stick to the same workout program as the men and share river time with the men on the raft slalom training course they designed on the Eagle River, they had a much stiffer assignment.
"I was nervous - this is the first time we've had real competition," Jess McGowan said of the largest women's field at nationals in years, which featured an Oregon team as well as a California and a local team captained by Nicole Nasser and Cristin Zimmer, respectively, a pair of team captains with substantial race experience at both nationals and worlds.
The Timberline Women team (which includes Lisa Reeder, Dawn Vogeler, McGowan, Jody Swoboda, Lizzie Burnett, Jaime Passchier and alternate Kathleen Garcia) still was able to pass the California team mid-race to retain its title.
Reeder, who will be racing in her fifth world championship with Vogeler, said she thinks the team combines a good mix of veteran experience with new talent, such as McGowan, who will be sitting in the guide seat for her first worlds.
"There were some big shoes that needed to be filled, but I feel great with this team : everything's coming together perfect," Reeder said, hoping to arrive strong off Colorado's high water season and to improve on the women's 2005 performance - one marred by a disappointing sprint and slalom, but highlighted by a third-place downriver finish that earned them sixth place.
Regardless of how the teams finish, both seek to increase the visibility of the sport at whitewater's grassroots level, not only to help court sponsors so international travel is not paid out-of-pocket, but also as the key to fielding the nation's most competitive team possible.
To 8 Ball's Redden, this comes down to local and regional participation, more boats on the river and more Colorado rafters stepping to the plate.
"Where's Steamboat's crew?" Redden challenged.