Breckenridge- and Vail-based rafting teams underdogs world championships |

Breckenridge- and Vail-based rafting teams underdogs world championships

Jeremiah Peck (front left), Matt Norfleet (front right), John Mark Seelig (back left) and John Anicito charge through the rapids in Gore Canyon during a race this summer. The team of four qualified as the U.S. National team in California in May and will head to the World Championships in Brazil this October.
Special to the Daily |

In the world of competitive whitewater rafting, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams are the underdogs. They’re snow makers, ski patrollers, paramedics, current and former raft guides and substitute teachers who try to find time to practice the sport on the side. Everyone has a day job. But when they travel to Brazil in October for the annual World Rafting Championships, they’ll be up against fully financed national teams with full-time professional paddlers and big-name sponsors.

“It’s tough to have time to elevate to that level of competition,” Matt Norfleet, of the men’s team, said.

While in other countries the sport is well established, here in the states it is still in its relative infancy. There are no big sponsors jumping behind the U.S. teams — at least not yet — and it’s hard to balance time between family and work.

“However we can fit in,” Norfleet said. “As things come up, we have to adjust.”

They spend their free hours paddling in rec center pools in the winter and on Colorado rivers and lakes in the summer, fine-tuning their skills and getting in sync.

“It’s been a struggle,” Julie Sutton, of the women’s team, added. She is the only returning member of a women’s national team that competed at the world championships last year in New Zealand. “We’ve had some lineup changes. Life happens,” she said, describing what could almost be a team mantra. “You pretty much have to start over.”

The two mostly Breckenridge- and Vail-based teams are largely independently financed. Relying on fundraising efforts and minimal sponsorship in an expensive sport.

Despite that, the men’s team has consistently finished in the top five or 10 overall, among about 50 countries competing. Last year the women’s team took third in one of four events.

The men’s and women’s teams both started as independent teams — the Ark Sharks and Red Lady Rafters respectively — which earned the right to represent the U.S. by winning nationals this year in California. The Red Lady team will make its second consecutive appearance at Worlds. In 2013 the team won nationals while competing on its home turf in the Royal Gorge. The Ark Shark men’s team earned its first national title this year, but it also includes members of the former national team — Vail-based Behind the 8 Ball.

The men bring two paddlers with world championship experience when Worlds open Oct. 16. Parts of the competition will be held on what will be the Olympic course for kayaking and canoeing — rafting is not yet an Olympic sport, but has been considered.

Worlds consist of four events that combine to crown the overall world champion; host Brazil is the defending champion. The teams will compete in an individual time trial, a head-to-head sprint, a slalom and a mass start race.

Last year the women earned their bronze in head-to-head. The men also nearly took third.

Both teams finished seventh overall.

As for this year, “I think we’re going to be right there with them,” first-time national team competitor and Ark Sharks founder John Anicito said. “We’ve been practicing really hard. It’s some of the fastest paddling I’ve been a part of. I think we have a good shot at the top five.”

Sutton said the women will face a challenge with such an inexperienced team.

Both teams will continue fundraising efforts leading up to Worlds. The men will host an event at the Broken Compass Brewing in Breckenridge, Sunday at 6 p.m. For $20 guests get two beers and a raffle ticket. The grand prize will be a season pass to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The women held a fundraiser at the brewery earlier this week. Contributions to each team can also be made through their sites at (/USA-Womens-Team or USARaftingBrazil2014 for the men).

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