Sarah Hamilton has spent the past month driving to and from Vail-area training spots since she was added to the U.S. Rafting team’s roster after wowing the squad in her kayak at an August river event.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Sarah Hamilton has spent the past month driving to and from Vail-area training spots since she was added to the U.S. Rafting team’s roster after wowing the squad in her kayak at an August river event.

Oak Creek kayaker joins up with world-class rafting team

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Adam Mayo/Courtesy Photo

Sarah Hamilton kayaks through the Slideways rapids on the Big South run of the Cache la Poudre River. Hamilton has been all about kayaking in recent years after starting her career on the water rafting. She recently joined the U.S. Rafting team and is heading to Costa Rica for her first competition with that squad.

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For more information about the team or about donating to support its trip to Costa Rica, check out its website.

— When she returned home to Oak Creek on Aug. 29, Sarah Hamilton knew she’d had a uniquely good weekend. The kayaker, a fixture in local creeks and now a three-time competitor in Steamboat Springs’ Memorial Day Paddling Life Pro Kayaking Invitational, had scored big again.

She won an award for being the fastest female down the five-mile Gore Canyon in the annual Timberline Gore Canyon Race.

She even beat the U.S. Women’s Whitewater Raft Racing team, smoking the section of the Colorado River in 25 minutes, 55 seconds.

But things got better a day later when she got an e-mail from an address she didn’t know.

“It was from the captain of the U.S. team, inviting me to join the team and paddle with them,” Hamilton said.

That one e-mail has changed everything for Hamilton, who was nearly done paddling for the season.

“It said that they were based in Eagle and Vail and asked if I’d be interested,” Hamilton recalled. “I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’” 

Fate intercedes

A track-and-field athlete at Colorado State University while in school, Hamilton is no stranger to big-time sports. She’s plenty familiar with all things water, as well.

She exploded on the Routt County kayaking scene in 2008, when as an amateur competing against professionals she placed third in an ultracompetitive field at the Paddling Life Pro Invitational.

She has qualified for the event in the two years since, as well, and travels the county and the state with other whitewater addicts. She’s even teaching a kayaking class at Colorado Mountain College.

The raft isn’t anything new, either, and the whole experience Hamilton is expecting from her stint on the team will fit poetically into her life.

The team was looking for an extra member before it heads next month to Costa Rica for a pre-world-championships rafting competition.

Hamilton spent 18 months guiding rafts on the very Costa Rican river on which that race will be held before she ever took up kayaking.

“The whole thing is really ironic,” she said. “I guided commercially the entire time I was down there, so I know those rivers like the back of my hand.”

The decision to commit to the trip, which starts Oct. 4, wasn’t easy. She had to decide to skip a close friend’s wedding and dedicate a massive amount of time to training before the trip.

“I had really forgotten about rafting and let go of the dream about ever being on a nationally ranked team,” said Hamilton, who actually pursued the idea of setting up her own squad in her heyday in the sport.

“It’s so funny how it all came back around.”

Relearning the ropes

Returning to rafting hasn’t been easy.

Hamilton said it’s meant a lot of hours on the road, following sketchy directions to isolated river put-ins for training.

“We were tied to a culvert on a lake with the biggest coil of bungees I’d ever seen, working on resistance training,” she said about one workout. “We paddle on flat water and down river. There’s a slalom course we work on, too. According to the ladies, that’s where we need the most work.”

Hamilton has been left to take their word for it. A river rat for years now, she’s found herself surprisingly out of her element in the upper echelon of rafting.

“Sometimes, they’ll all say something, and I just have to stop and say, ‘Wait, what does that mean?’” she said.

Paying for the experience hasn’t been easy, either. The team has some sponsors, but it blew much of its budget on a series of races in the Netherlands before Hamilton was on the team. She’s looking to put together a fundraiser to help support her trip.

The basics of it all, however, have come right back, and she’s plenty excited to be taking a trip and joining a team that even a month ago she had no idea was even a possibility.

“I was just in the right place at the right time, and I had a good day and dazzled the right people,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s totally luck, but Dan (Piano, her boyfriend) tells me not to sell myself short.

“Either way, I’ll take it. I’m having a great time, and I’m going back to Costa Rica, which is incredible for me.”

— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@steamboatpilot.com

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