Beware the Ark Sharks, Breckenridge’s national championship rafting crew

Interviewed by Phil Lindeman
The Breckenridge-based rafting team Ark Sharks barrels through whitewater at the Riversport Rapids park in Oklahoma City during the 2017 U.S. Rafting Assoication National Championships on May 20. The Ark Sharks won the slalom contest for the first time since 2017 and earned an invite to the 2018 World Rafting Championships in Argentina.
Tom Dunning / Special to the Daily |

The first run was a rough. The second run was golden.

On May 20, the Ark Sharks — a Breckenridge-based competitive rafting crew that trains, guides and trains some more in Colorado — entered the slalom competition at the U.S. Rafting Association National Championships in Oklahoma City with something to prove. The team won a national title in 2014, but it had gone winless at Nationals since then, even with a stacked crew of boaters: Jeremiah Peck, a Salida resident and recent appointee to the USRA board of directors; John Melrose, a Buena Vista rafter and longtime guide on the Arkansas River, the team’s namesake; Joe Sialiano, an Evergreen local and the team’s newest member, who joined just four weeks before this year’s Nationals; and John Anicito, the team captain and founder who’s been guiding locally for nearly two decades.

The Ark Sharks had the pedigree, but the team still needed a flawless run against two foes: steep competition from other veteran boaters and nasty, manmade whitewater at the Riversport Rapids venue. It was “by far the hardest slalom course that we have seen at any national event,” USRA officials said.

They weren’t exaggerating. On the first slalom run, the Arks Sharks got caught off-guard by tough, tight gates and flipped the raft. Things looked grim after that first run: the team finished nearly two full minutes behind the leader, Sage Raft Racing of Eagle County, to end at third out of three senior-level teams.

But competitive rafting crews have two chances for glory, and that’s all it took for the Ark Sharks to find focus. The second run was nearly perfect, with no flipping, no missed gates and just 20 seconds of penalty time, compared to 120 seconds for Sage and 125 seconds for the third team in the division, Riversport OKC Men.

With a best one-of-two format, that second run was enough to undo all the wrong from the first — and clinch the slalom Nationals title.

“It was a really strong showing on our part,” said Peck, who’s busy with a newborn when he isn’t on the water. “There are only two (other) teams in our division, so it would’ve been nice to have a few more teams to compete against, but that’s out of our control.”

But wait, there’s more. A Nationals title also earned the Ark Sharks an invite to the 2018 World Rafting Championships in Argentina this November — a first visit since 2015. The team still has plenty of time to prepare, but between guiding and “playing daddy daycare,” Peck knows time will fly. He caught up with the Summit Daily sports desk soon after Nationals to talk about his team, that disastrous first run and what it will take to dominate in Argentina.

Summit Daily News: First things first: congrats on the Nationals title. Was the competition pretty fierce, even with a small field of boaters?

Jeremiah Peck: It is, it really is. It’s been stiff competition, with teams coming out of the Vail Valley that are really strong, and there’s a growing interest out east these days. There are teams from Tennessee and other areas and you really never know what could happen in these events. You could be racing one team or eight teams, and that all depends on how motived people are to put a team together and make it happen.

SDN: How do you prepare for something like this, especially coming from Colorado, where river season doesn’t actually start until mid-May?

JP: We’ve been paddling about once a week at the whitewater park in Salida since December. We’ve been doing slalom drills, start drills, and that can really be one of the most important skills in your repertoire — starts can really make the difference. Starting in February and March we were going to the Arkansas River — around the Stone Bridge area — to get some down-water rafting.

We also spent lots of personal time with cardio and strength training. Each athlete took that on themselves to make sure they were at the top end of what they could do, but nothing really beats paddling together and that’s one thing this team did well. You watch the video of our time trial and we’re in sync almost the entire time. There really is no substitute for timing the boat, paddling together, being a team.

SDN: How long did it take to reach that level, as a team and as solo rafters?

JP: It’s the amount of time we put into paddling together, where we’re perfecting our technique, and not only paddling technique, but (also) reading water. There’s little things like shifting our weight (and) realizing it’s more important to stay in the current than paddle as hard as you can. It’s easy to just put your head down and paddle, but that’s just not the fastest way to go.

For Anicito, this is his 17th year of raft racing. This is my eighth year, Melrose has been doing this five years, Joe has been out there a decade, so we all have put a lot of time into perfecting the technique of reading whitewater. A lot of the other teams out there are super strong and have the base techniques, but now it comes down to the finer points: getting off the tube to help the boat move, not dragging slack water — a lot of things that are small.

SDN: And now you’re heading to worlds. How do you prepare for that?

JP: I went to Brazil with the R4 team in 2015 and the athletes who show up at worlds are incredible. You want to talk about pure athleticism, you look at a team like Brazil and they’re on the same level as Olympians. They’re incredible athletes. We have more than a year to prepare for this Worlds, which is great. That will help us dial in as a team, take things to the next level with endurance and strength, and now the next part of it is raising funds to compete at that level.

SDN: Are the courses at Nationals and Worlds similar? Like, does one honestly help prepare a team for the other?

JP: The one at Nationals was a manmade course, but the one in Argentina will be natural. We’re looking at a Class III or IV river down there, so it will be a little different. We won’t have very much access to get practice out there — you need the ability to scout the entire course with ease — and that always plays a factor at Worlds.

Nationals, even though it was a manmade course, was still a very good showing. There were only two or three teams that made every single gate and there was a spectrum of teams that flipped, including us. We flipped on our first run. You get that entire spectrum of people, from people who have never done this before to people like us with lots of experience, but everyone knew they had to step it up with their best run. We ended up wining slalom by 10 or 15 seconds, which is quite a bit.

So yeah, Argentina will be different. It’s a natural course and that will play into our training here.

SDN: Talk about bouncing back from that early flip: How do you prepare mentally for something unexpected on the river?

JP: We knew that slalom was a strong point for us and we definitely spent a lot of time practicing slalom. You really just have to take things like that for what they are, and then forget about it (laughs). You just realize you can’t let it happen again and get back to what you’re good at: visualizing the course and believing in ourselves. We knew that our best run was possible as soon as we started that second lap.

SDN: Are you confident in this team heading to Worlds?

JP: Oh yeah. There are a bunch of races coming up, like The Numbers race at PaddleFest last weekend (in Buena Vista), and then there’s FIBArk (in Salida) and a bunch of other events to help us stay dialed.

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