BY MALIA DURBANO
This June, the Red Ladies Raft Racing team from Salida, Colo. upset 12-time champion, The Elements from Vail, Colo., to win the U.S. National Championship. The title was one thing, but the opportunity ahead is a whole other matter—being the right team to represent the United States in the 2013 International Rafting Federation World Rafting Championships, mid-November in Rotorua, New Zealand.
The U.S. Rafting Association nationals took place June 20-22 in Canon City, Colo., as part of the first annual Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival, with the race course set in the Arkansas River's famed gorge section. A third of Colorado team, the new Animas Amazons from Durango, provided stiff competition for the veteran pair of women's teams. The Red Ladies, however, won all four race events, edging the Elements by only one second in the Time Trials event, with the Amazons following 3/100ths of a second later.
The Red Ladies had been incorporating strength workouts and increasing practice days on the water as the June competition neared. But the real work for the race started back in December, with the team tethering its practice raft to the side of a swimming pool for winter resistance training—begging the question, "Who invests this much energy in racing rafts?"
"I saw the breadth of the sport globally and made it my goal to create more women's teams," says Cristin Zimmer, who with Julie Sutton, started the Red Ladies in 2010. Zimmer had previously raced with The Elements in the 2005 worlds in Ecuador. The sport's draw, the pair says, is the teamwork and the multitude of skills needed to compete in the raft racing's various disciplines: the gated slalom race; the time-trial sprint of each boat against the clock; the head-to-head sprint that's a bracketed contest generally in Class II water; and finally the downriver race, typically held on challenging Class IV and Class V whitewater requiring 45 to 90 minutes of all-out paddling and worth 40 percent of a team's score in a championship event.
Watching video of the sprint race, Sutton counted 163 strokes in two minutes, "making adjustments while flying." Meanwhile, the most technical discipline of slalom racing still involves all-out paddling for about five minutes, which Zimmer explains, "requires a ton of communication."
The Red Ladies' lines of communication benefited from the insight of coach Todd Toledo, a former member of the men's reigning U.S. National Team, Behind the Eight Ball, for 12 years. "They became a machine," says Toledo, who understands the competition from some of the top teams in the world: Brazil, Japan, Czech Republic and Norway. "Rafting is a much bigger sport in Europe, almost like a club sport," Toldeo says. "Kids just grow up paddling, unlike here in the U.S. where most of the sports are ball-related."
Toledo and the U.S. men took seventh place at the last World Rafting Championships, held in 2011 on Costa Rica's Pacuare River, while the Vail-based women's team also finished in seventh place overall. [Click HERE to read more.] At the 2009 worlds in Bosnia, the U.S. cracked the podium, taking home silver in the sprint event, and sixth overall, while the women placed eighth overall [Click HERE to read more.] Fifty-six teams are currently registered to compete at the 2013 IRF worlds in New Zealand with another 17 expected.
"I got a chance to use what I learned racing at the world level to help these ladies," says Toledo. "They had so much passion, dedication and commitment, they just needed to perfect their strokes and technique."
Meanwhile, the men's team, Behind the Eight Ball, minus Toledo, ended the nationals knotted in an exact tie with the Ark Sharks (a first for the contest). The USRA's Board of Directors deferred to a determination from a pre-race meeting that the tiebreaker would go to the sprint race winner (as opposed to IRF rules that award the slalom winner). The ruling proved controversial as the Ark Sharks had won the slalom, though sprint winners Behind the Eight Ball emerged with the national team title, which it's held since 2002.
Currently, both teams are continuing their workouts and fundraising efforts with an eye on New Zealand. The hope is a respectable showing at the world championships, if not an outside shot at the podium. Fortunately, paddling in unknown water doesn't phase Zimmer: "When you can read and feel water, you can execute lines in any whitewater."