For the 13th year in a row a team from the Colorado High Country claimed the U.S. Raft Association’s National Rafting Championship title. But for the first time in 12 years, it wasn’t the Vail Valley-based Behind the 8 Ball men’s whitewater team.
Breckenridge’s Ark Sharks rafting team took top honors earlier this month at nationals on the Cal Salmon River in Northern California. With the win the four-man team earned a chance to compete in the World Rafting Championships scheduled to take place in Foz de Iguacu City, Brazil, this fall.
“It’s great. We put in so much time over the last four or five years,” team co-founder John Anicito said. “This is the strongest group of guys I’ve ever paddled with.”
The team swept all four qualifying races at nationals to earn the title of USA Raft Team, an honor they will hold until next year’s nationals. They will be joined at worlds by fellow Coloradoans the Red Lady Rafting women’s team from Salida. The women claimed their second consecutive national title.
IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ’EM ...
While the men from the Ark Sharks might have preferred unseating their Vail Valley rivals for the national title, Behind the 8 Ball did not field a team this year to defend its 12 championships after two longtime members retired from racing. But the Vail team won’t go unrepresented when the Sharks hit the water for worlds. Three of the four paddlers on the new U.S.A. Raft Team paddled for Behind the 8 Ball on at least one of the teams that went to worlds in years past.
Ark Shark co-founder Matt Norfleet of Breckenridge served as a substitute on last year’s six-man U.S. team along with former 8 Ball paddler and Lakota Guides co-owner John Seelig. Sharks team member Todd Toledo also paddled with the Vail team at one point before joining the Sharks.
“We were able to merge two teams and form a really strong team,” Seelig said. “It’s great jumping in a boat with guys who have experience. Instead of starting from ground zero, all we had to do is learn to work together.”
The team spent the winter practicing weekly in the Breckenridge Recreation Center pool, before shifting to the Upper Blue River in late March and early April.
Anicito credited his team’s dedication to practice since its founding in 2010. In four years team has also grown into more of a club format.
Currently it has two active teams and hopes to continue to grow in the future.
“Hopefully we will get some young folks out there to show them what racing his about. It’s definitely a growing sport,” Ancito said.
He will be the only member of the four-man team to compete in worlds for the first time.
As to whether Behind the 8 Ball could ever see a resurrection, Seelig said he didn’t know. But he would like to see another team in the Vail Valley to continue to grow the sport and have a healthy competition between local rivals.
“If we really want to develop rafting, I think having two teams would be a good way to develop competition.”
Each year the International Rafting Federation (IRF) alternates its world championship competition between four-man and six-man teams.
It also selects a different host country to put on the competition. Last year’s event was held in New Zealand.
BRAZIL ... OR NOT
While Brazil is scheduled to host this year’s competition there is concern that a record drought will leave water levels too low for competition.
Anicito and Seelig said they expect to hear a decision about the event as soon as next week. It’s possible that organizers may move the competition from September to October. There’s also discussion of moving the event to a different host country.
Wherever the competition is held, the U.S. team will face some stiff competition.
Seelig said other nations have a longer history with rafting competition and many also have more sponsorships. While the U.S. team members all have other full-time jobs, other nations, like Japan and Brazil, field teams made up of professionals, some also with Olympic experience in kayaking and canoeing.
“The sponsorships are the hardest part,” Seelig said. “It makes it hard to stay on the same level. Racing is more established in other countries. The Japanese and Brazilians are literally paid professionals.”
Still he likes the U.S. team’s chances this year. Last year the team was 1/13th of a second off the podium.
“My goal is to medal. If we can do that, that would be amazing,” he said.