Steamboat Springs kayaker Rich Weiss is shown at the 1996 Olympic Games. Weiss finished sixth that year.

U.S. Canoe and Kayak/Courtesy

Steamboat Springs kayaker Rich Weiss is shown at the 1996 Olympic Games. Weiss finished sixth that year.

Weiss made waves

Dedication, fair play trademarks of Olympic kayaker

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For more Olympic stories, read 'Steamboat rower misses medal, finds glory of Olympics' or 'Wiik: Games were 'terrific fun''

— Dedication was never an issue for two-time Olympic kayaker Rich Weiss.

"There was never a problem, never an issue with Rich," said former coach Tom Steitz. "If there was a way to get something done, then Rich would come up with it."

Steitz still remembers coaching the kayaker during the early 1980s.

"He came up with the idea of using a sledgehammer and an axe to keep a section of the Yampa River open for training," Steitz said. "I'm not sure that we gained anything physically or technically, but it shows the 110 percent commitment that it takes to get a medal in a sport like kayaking. Rich showed that same level of dedication in everything he did."

Unfortunately, Rich was never awarded the Olympic medal he worked so hard to earn. He died at the age of 33 following a kayaking accident on the White Salmon River, just north of White Salmon, Washington. His death left a hole in Steamboat's Olympic heritage, but the examples he left behind live on with his family, friends and the generations of paddlers who follow in his footsteps.

Weiss' mother, Edith, said her son was introduced to the sport of kayaking during family outings as a child and fell in love with the sport. She said he was dedicated to everything he did in his life and that kayaking was no exception.

In 1992, the Steamboat Springs kayaker appeared to be racing toward a medal at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. But a controversial gate call by a German judge dropped the American off the podium. The five-second penalty left him with a disappointing 16th-place finish.

"It was very political because Rich would have knocked the German kayaker off the podium," Rich's wife, Rosi, said. "Rich was not mad, but he was sad because he felt that he deserved to be on the podium. He had trained so hard, and in his heart he knew he should be up there. It really hurt him, but he never showed it."

Instead, Rich took the ruling in stride.

"Everybody else was moaning about it, but not Rich," Steitz said. "He went to bed that night knowing that on that day he had performed well enough to win a medal, and I think that was all that was important to him."

Setting the standard

Weiss' calm, collected approach to the controversy that sometimes flared up in kayaking in those days set the standard for class.

And he excelled competitively.

Weiss became the first American to win a medal in men's kayaking at a World Championship event when he took the silver on the Noce River in Mezzana, Italy, in 1993.

"The field at the World Championships has way more depth than at the Olympics," Rosi said. "When he finished second, he was so happy. "

He was also the overall champion of the first Champion International Whitewater Series in 1990. He won the series again in 1993.

When Rich returned to the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, he was the top American. But his quiet nature left him in the shadows of his teammates. However, Rosi said his sixth-place finish was one of his best Olympic showings in a very competitive field.

Weiss' achievements reach far beyond the bubbling waters of Olympic competition.

He earned a degree in geological engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, a master's degree in hydrogeology from Penn State University and a doctorate in geological sciences at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. At the time of his death in 1997 he also owned his own company, Weisswater Associates, where he served as an environmental consultant.

Steitz said the footprint left on the sport by Rich was easy to see at a memorial service in Steamboat following his death. Hundreds of people, including the top names in the sport, came to honor the local kayaker who set the standard in the sport despite coming from a town more known for skiers than paddlers.

"I'm proud that Rich was a kayaker from a town like Steamboat Springs," Edith said. "This town is a lot more than just a ski resort, and it's important that athletes like Rich and Anne Kakela also get the recognition that they deserve. It shows how well-rounded our town really is."

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