Steamboat’s Rich Weiss thanks a sledgehammer for making the Olympic kayak team
August 15, 2016
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS —
It took a sledgehammer for Steamboat Springs kayaker Rich Weiss to make it to the Summer Olympics.
The memory drew a chuckle from Tom Steitz as the longtime Winter Olympic coach recalled the determined kid who willed his way from the snowy wonderland of Steamboat Springs to two Summer Olympic appearances.
He was paddling in Steamboat one afternoon when Weiss showed up on the river's shore, looking for a coach to help him achieve his goals.
“My name’s Richie, and I want to go to the Olympics.”Rich WeissSteamboat Springs kayaker
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"We paddled year round," he said. "That actually meant we'd go out there with a sledgehammer in the winter to keep a little piece of water open on the river."
They'd slip into the Old Town Hot Springs after hours on other winter days and work in the pool there — back and forth, back and forth, doing anything possible to ensure nothing as trivial as 400 inches of snow and -20 degree temperatures would freeze out Weiss' grandiose Olympic dreams.
The flat pool water bore little resemblance to the rushing courses Weiss encountered at the 1992 and 1996 summer games. It looked even less like the treacherous Pacific Northwest river that took his life in 1997.
"If you ever asked, 'What are we doing here?'" Steitz recalled, "he'd just smile and point to his bicep. That was his way of saying we were getting in shape for whitewater."
Smiling and pointing to his bicep — sign language of the athletic set — was often as talkative as Weiss got. He was quiet, but focused, out of place but determined to join the ranks of Steamboat Olympians, doing so far differently than any of the skiers or snowboarders the town has produced.
Now, nearly two decades after his death, Weiss's imprint on the town endures, as does his status as one of the few Steamboat summer Olympians.
Big trouble at Big Brother
It's not that the friends of Rich Weiss — always "Richie" to them — can't talk about what happened, or don't know how it happened.
The basics are clear, and the details, they gladly gloss over.
Weiss retired from serious competitive kayaking after his most successful Olympic stint, a sixth-place finish in the 1996 Atlanta Games. He trained hard for everything, of course, but really poured it on for that opportunity, moving to Atlanta in the years before the games to train on the Ocoee River, the venue for the Olympic kayak slalom event.
The battle to be the country's top paddler was fierce that summer, and Weiss won the U.S. Olympic Trials race on that river to assert that he'd be a major threat for a medal.
Afterward, he moved to Hood River, Oregon, with his wife, Rosi.
He and a friend, John Trujillo, set out to boat in late June 1997, squeezing in some runs ahead of a camp and a race in which they planned to participate. Rosi, six months pregnant, was driving a shuttle from the drop-off, on the White Salmon River, to a pickup spot six miles downstream.
The river was "technical and pushy," according to an accident report that was compiled from eyewitness accounts. It was running high, at 2,000 cubic feet per second, but wasn't at flood stage.
A 30-foot waterfall and rapids section named "Big Brother" waited about a quarter of the way through the run, looming as the largest drop on that stretch of river but not usually the most difficult.
The next time Trujillo saw Weiss, he was offline, too far right and headed for trouble.
That day, June 25, 1997, Richie Weiss made a mistake at the Big Brother rapids.
Weiss's greatest moment kayaking may say as much about him as those stories about hammering out the ice on the Yampa River.
He was near the top of his sport heading into the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He'd compiled big results and podium finishes heading into the Olympics, and there, he paddled like one of the best in the world.
Two mistakes in his run slowed him down. He was penalized twice for touching the slalom gates, each carrying a five-second penalty.
Only, he didn't touch both times. Video later revealed one of the penalties to be incorrect.
It was a consequential mistake. With the penalty, he was mired in 16th place. Without it, he would have won an Olympic bronze medal.
"He was a medalist because he didn't touch that gate," Van De Carr said. "It was one of the most profound moments in his life, and misjudgment of his run kept him from obtaining that ultimate goal."
How he handled it and how he'd handled a similar setback at the 1989 World Championships spoke far more than Weiss ever did.
His friends painted him as quiet and stoic. When it came to his disappointment about the Olympics, he barely said a word, at least not to them. He just got back to work.
They weren't surprised.
Weiss wasn't the guy you called for a wild night at the bars.
"He wasn't a goofball, by any means," Van De Carr said. "He was freaking focused."
That focus first defined him in the classroom, from elementary school in Steamboat to college at Colorado School of Mines and Penn State, but he could never stay away from the water.
"I never foresaw spending the next six years with the kid, watching him grow and develop and become arguably the best in the world for several years," said Steitz, his coach. "The question the whole time was, 'How did we produce such a paddler from Ski Town USA?'"
John Trujillo could only watch as Rich Weiss descended the 30-foot Big Brother waterfall.
It immediately looked wrong. Weiss was going too slow, and he was off his line, drifting to the right toward danger.
"He approached the lip of Big Brother with little speed and appeared to stall," Trujillo wrote. "I waited for the powerful last stroke, but he seemed to just fall off the drop."
He plunged to the base of the falls and was immediately swallowed up by the hydraulic and pulled back into the cave.
Mist boiled up, clouding Trujillo's view. He could see the boat spinning, but little else.
When Trujillo had faced a similar circumstance on a previous run, he'd been ejected from the cave after 30 seconds. Weiss's boat remained, however, and the seconds added up.
Two minutes in, Trujillo established that Weiss was definitely out of his boat. Trujillo scrambled to shore, then crawled across the slick rocks and as close to the falls as he dared
Weiss's boat eventually shot free, floating down the river, but there was no sign of Weiss. Trujillo pulled out a rope and tossed it through the mist and into the cave, hoping Weiss would latch on. He threw it again and again, but finally gave up after 45 minutes.
He hiked out to a nearby road, hitchhiked to the nearest town and called for help.
"Next came the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," he wrote. "From the pay phone, I walked across the street to the take-out where Rosi was waiting for us. With my stomach in my throat and on the verge of tears, I told her that the love of her life, her soul mate, and the father of her unborn child was dead."
They found Weiss's body that night, draped over a log down river from the Big Brother rapids, drowned.
He was 33 years old.
'I want to go to the Olympics'
On the banks of the Yampa, at Dr. Rich Weiss Park, artist Tyler Richardella crafted a bronze sculpture of Weiss guiding a kayak through whitewater, with big splashes lashing the side of the boat, one paddle blade buried in the surf, the other high in the air.
Weiss looks out from under his helmet, his gaze locked forward, directly at the slalom course.
That's where it started, at least for Steitz.
He remembers the first day.
He spent the afternoon paddling through slalom gates but was interrupted by a teenager with a dream.
"He showed up literally riding a bicycle," Steitz said. "He had a shopping cart tied behind the bike, and there was a kayak strapped into the cart."
Weiss was looking for a coach and had been told where he might find one.
That was before the World Championships and before Rosi, before the nights paddling in the pool and before the days sledgehammering away the ice.
It was the start of something special.
"He said, 'My name's Richie, and I want to go to the Olympics.'"
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