Steamboat Springs The phrase "come for the winter, stay for the summer" is thrown so casually around Steamboat Springs it might as well be painted on the city limit sign.
It's a mantra that proves only half true for Sarah Hamilton. She came for the summer, and after three years in Steamboat - the vast majority of which was spent on the area's raging creeks and rivers - she still lives for it.
Always competitive, her struggle has been learning to balance the love of the sport with its inherent competition.
"I don't want to get to the point where I'm obsessed," she said Friday morning. "Well, I am obsessed with kayaking, but I don't want it to be the only thing I think about."
Hamilton reached her competitive zenith early Monday afternoon. Participating in the Paddling Life Pro Invitational for the first time, she qualified for the finals in the freestyle competition.
Not only did she qualify, she finished third in that event and fourth overall.
"I was surprised," Hamilton said.
She wasn't the only one. Anyone who saw the 26-year-old Steamboat Springs resident first take to the water in a kayak - just three years ago - might have been surprised as well.
It wasn't all that surprising, however.
Hamilton's had a lifelong love of competing and the outdoors. She's a natural athlete who doesn't like to stand aside and watch. In her three years in the sport, kayaking not only brought her to Steamboat, it's taken her around the continent.
And she's just getting started.
Kayaking was a natural progression for Hamilton, who got her start in the water by swimming at an early age. After her freshman year at Colorado State University, she found a job as a rafting guide. Despite having no experience, she flew through training lessons and spent five years with the company. But it took a while for her to realize that her future wasn't in a raft.
"I thought rafting sounded neat and I went for it, but all the time I had been watching the kayakers," Hamilton said. "Even after I tried kayaking, I kept rafting, but just to make money. Kayaking became my passion."
Talking of her dedication to the sport, Hamilton lit up Friday morning. She said she gets to the water on most - no, every day, she reconsidered. It's where she finds competition, but more importantly friends, peace and relaxation.
Hamilton is plenty familiar with being obsessed with a sport. She ran track and cross country at CSU and was dedicated to becoming faster.
Eventually, it became too much.
"I was to the point with running where it was my life," she said. "It was my life, and not in a healthy way.
"I was so competitive in college, competitive even on our team. That was tough. You were secretly always hoping your friend would do worse than you and I didn't like that about it, so I changed my focus."
In kayaking, she still found competition, but what she labeled a much more subdued variety than the intercollegiate kind.
It was a way to maintain her lifelong drive and stay grounded, she said.
It's that same drive that's helped her leap so high so quickly in the local kayaking scene.
"Sarah's the only woman I know that takes class five (rapids) as willing as she does," said Dan Piano, Hamilton's boyfriend and a fixture on the area's water long before she came to town. "She can keep her head about her in a lot of difficult situations. She's mentally tough, which comes from her cross-country and running background."
Where her life on the water will take her, Hamilton doesn't even want to guess. For now, she's working to pay bills and support her love. And with every success such as that which she enjoyed Monday, she's growing more confident.
"It's every kayaker's dream to kayak well enough to get free stuff," she said, laughing.
She didn't laugh when talking about a future traveling the country to compete in kayak events, however. She said she's determined to remain grounded, not to give into the same vicious competition that eventually soured her on running.
She's equally determined to continue improving at riding the river.
"I don't have any false hopes or expectations that I'll get rich and famous kayaking, but I'd love to be able to do it more frequently," she said. "Out of kayaking, I'd like to know that every day when I go out and I compete on whatever level, that I try to improve. That's my goal, just to continue to improve and enjoy it as much as I did my first day."