BRECKENRIDGE - On Tuesdays at 6 a.m. the Ark Sharks, a local whitewater rafting team, can be found at the Breckenridge Recreation Center, paddling a raft tethered to the waterslide.
They know they have to get up pretty early in the morning if they want to beat the Vail raft team, their closest and fiercest competition.
"The team that we've got to beat is a top 5, top 10 team in the world, so we've got a huge challenge," said John Anicito, who works as a raft guide in the summer. "We practice all winter."
Vail has been the team to beat in recent years, taking the national competitions and winning the right to represent the U.S. at the World Rafting Championships the last several years running. This year, the Ark Sharks are out to steal the title and the slot at the international competition.
But the competition has both skill and experience. The Vail team has been competing together since the 1990s and is better known in the fledgling sport.
"When you look at those teams they've got more respect, they've been racing longer," said Austen Dyer, who has been on the team roughly 18 months. "What we have to do to catch up is we have to train harder, we have to work harder. Our whole goal is that we're part of a team that hopefully could win."
If the Summit team wins the national six-man men's competition in June it'll advance to the World Championships in New Zealand in August. If not, the team plans to move on to compete in Brazil as a four-man team.
"We're making that step to the international level," Anicito said. "That's been a goal of ours, to travel and see some great rivers around the country and around the world."
The all men's team practices with eight people on the roster, all of whom can paddle upwards of 75 strokes a minute for 40 minutes or more. Most of the competitive races are 3-minute sprints, but the team has to be prepared for a 7-10 mile downriver event.
"It's painful fun we call it," said Kurt Myers, who guides with Performance Tours.
The Ark Sharks compete locally and regionally throughout the summer months, but hasn't yet had a big win against the Vail team.
"We've been chasing this team for the last three years," Anticio said. "And we're gaining on them. We've had a couple good wins but not against the U.S. Team."
Five of the Summit team members have been competing together for several years. Most are transplants whose love of rafting brought them to Summit County. They met at a local gym or while rafting together on the Arkansas River, which inspired the team name.
Collectively, the team has more than 60 years of rafting experience, but this will be their first year competing together at the national level.
"Nationals (is) pretty well sponsored and organized, it's just a bigger event," said Myers, who has competed at the national level before. "I've been to races where it's not really serious, people are there to have fun and party. And I've been to races where it's full-on sponsored, well organized and those are really exciting. You race against better teams."
To be successful at that level of competition, practice and training are critical to build strength and coordination. During practice at the Breck rec center, the team uses the resistance of a bungee cord to train physically in the absence of rapids, while working to hone its ability to paddle together.
"In a race, you're working as a unit," Dyer said. "You have to be in sync to make things happen."