For Heather Byrne of Frisco, it was about competition.
“Paddling for fun wasn’t enough,” she said. She’d watched her boyfriend, Todd Toledo, compete with the U.S. Men’s Whitewater Rafting Team in venues around the world. One day she decided that was enough. “I’m tired of spectating,” she said to herself.
Last year she decided she wanted to be a part of it and tried out for the Red Lady Raft Racing team, which competes annually at U.S. Nationals.
She officially joined the team just after 2012 Nationals. But that was just the first step for her and her new team.
The team’s larger goal was to make it to the International Rafting Federation World Rafting Championship, held this year in New Zealand. That meant unseating the reigning National Champion U.S. Women’s team at 2013 Nationals, held June 21 and 22 on the Royal Gorge section of the Arkansas River, and in Canon City’s whitewater park.
But before they could compete, there was practice, and lots of it.
“All winter long, I didn’t put a pair of skis on,” said Byrne. It was tough decision for an avid skier. “Outside of the office, it’s all skiing and rafting.”
Even in the dead of winter, the Red Ladies practiced. They trained in pools, in Salida and at the Breckenridge rec center.
“We were tied off and paddled nowhere,” she said of the training.
“As soon as the ice melted we were in Clear Creek Reservoir.”
The team practiced paddling in synch, and worked on conditioning to be ready when the snow melted.
As Nationals approached, the uncertain water level was an issue until the late snows came. The team then trained on different stretches of the Arkansas, from The Numbers down to the Royal Gorge.
With Nationals on the Royal Gorge this year, the team, largely based out of Salida, would seem to have had an advantage. Unfortunately for the Red Ladies, their primary competition was the 10-time national championship team from Vail.
If that wasn’t enough pressure, the Royal Gorge fire, caused a river closure that threatened to alter the course altogether. As the race approached it looked like the downriver racecourse might get cut in half, because of downed cables in the river, a result of the fire.
“We didn’t know what section of the Arkansas we’d be racing on,” said Byrne. “It wasn’t expected, but the training put us in the position to have the confidence to contend.”
Just two hours before the race, crews cleared the river making it possible for the downriver race portion of Nationals to run the entire length of the gorge.
The Red Lady Racers captured the national championship, sweeping the competition with first-place finishes in all four events: a time trial, a down-river race and head-to-head and slalom events.
With the win, the Red Ladies became the new U.S. Women’s Team, and will compete in Worlds in New Zealand in November.
“We have a lot of hard work on are hands,” said Byrne. “When you go international, there are teams out there that are heavily sponsored.”
Competing at Worlds is expensive and the competition is tough. She said the Red Ladies will have to raise around $25,000 to cover expenses.
The team will continue to train on the Arkansas through the summer, and raise money in preparation for New Zealand. Byrne is excited about the challenge that she and her teammates face.
“Out of a 1-to-10 scale, Worlds is a 10, Nationals is a 6.”