By Dave Costello
Vail, Colorado's Gore Creek is a Class I-II section of melodically burbling whitewater meandering lazily through the heart of après ski country— a quiet, unsuspecting brook bordered by wine shops, multi-million dollar condos, and stores that sell $500 cowboy boots. The water is lower than usual, and I'm absolutely terrified of it.
Cold sweat is dripping down my spine, even though I normally wouldn't think twice about floating this stream with nothing but a beer cooler and a half-inflated inner tube. But it's the last day of the 11th annual Teva Mountain Games, held this past weekend, May 31- June 3, in Vail, Colo., and there are hundreds, possibly thousands of people along the river bank, watching me—and I know, as soon as I peel out of this pristine, gin-clear mountain stream eddy, I'm going to get my ass kicked.
It's the 8 Ball competition— a longstanding, if not somewhat foolhardy tradition that closes out each year's Mountain Games, which draws the best athletes from around the globe to compete for over $100,000 in prize money in 24 different disciplines, covering eight sports, from biking, climbing, and paddling to slacklining and dog-jumping (seriously).
The idea behind the 8 Ball Race: Get the best boaters in the world to paddle as fast as they can downstream in a mass-start as they are attacked, repeatedly, with unrestrained vigor by a horde of kamikaze kayakers and catarafts (the "8 Balls") whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc on the racecourse. Needless to say, it's a great spectator event.
In the heat before mine I see Dane Jackson take a creekboat to the face, twice.
Chris Gragtmans, Dagger's team manager and the 6th place finisher at this year's Teva Games' Homestake Creek Race, can sense I'm having second thoughts. "You've gotta race, man," he tells me as he slaps me on the back and positions the loaner Mamba Creeker he's letting me use on the rocks. "It's fun. That's what this is all about, remember?"
He's right, I know. Despite Colorado having the worst snowpack in recent memory, and the resulting low water, which caused race organizers to cancel all of the SUP events at this year's games (citing the inherent dangers of falling face first into a foot and a half of water), the event still drew in a huge, fun-hungry crowd that didn't seem to mind the low water.
"We made the best of it," C&K contributing photographer Bryon Dorr tells me after describing how he and a handful of other boaters had funneled Gore Creek's current into a "playable" wave for the freestyle competition using two large sheets of plywood and several lengths of nylon rope. "The feature wasn't that big," he says, "but people were throwing down in it." Stephen Wright, who wound up beating out Dane Jackson for 1st Place at this year's Men's freestyle comp by only 50 points, got 1190 on his first ride in finals—no small feat, even on a big feature—and on his third ride, he executed the first ever five trick combo done in competition: a space godzilla, split wheel, four end cartwheel, split wheel to phonics monkey. If you don't know what that means, it's okay; hardly anybody does. But, it's pretty impressive nonetheless. Trust me. Dustin Urban took 3rd with a score of 960. Claire O'hara took 1st at the women's freestyle comp with a score of 610. Haley Mills and Courtney Kerin took 2nd and 3rd, with scores of 400 and 210.
Along with the Freestyle comp and Homestake Creek race, which Mike Dawson won after two lighting-fast runs down the Class V, 480 foot per mile gradient creek, barely besting Dane Jackson and Sam Sutton, who took 2nd and 3rd Place, respectively (Women's Top 3 finishers were Martina Wegman, Louise Jull, and Anne Hübner), the Games also included a downriver sprint (Won by Mike Dawson and Martina Wegman), Raft Cross, and, last but not least, the 8 Ball event. All watched by eager—and I couldn't help but notice—often scantily clad female spectators, excited to witness the carnage.
When the gun goes off for my 8 Ball heat, I intentionally lag behind the lead two boaters. A smart strategy, I think, as I watch them collide with a mass of "8 Ball" boaters and broach on a rock. The lead is mine. But now I'm the target…
Evading two kamikaze boaters, I'm still somehow in the lead coming into the final hole guarding the finish line. But then, I receive my comeuppance. A smirk-wearing 8 Ball boater in a 10 foot long Green Boat plasters me against the bridge embankment just before the finish line. I barely avoid flipping over and end up hobbling through the finish in 3rd Place and don't advance to the finals.
Oddly, I realize I'm not disappointed in the least as I look over at my fellow competitors, all smiling from ear to ear in the shallow eddy beside me. Even though I’m sore and defeated, like the majority of the athletes who travel here year after year to test themselves against the Mountain Games—I'm still stoked I came.
Click HERE to read Chris Gragtmans’ preview of the 2012 Teva Mountain Games, HERE for a gallery of this year’s Homestake Creek Race, and HERE for the final results from all of the 2012 Teva Mountain Games events.