Courtesy US Whitewater Raft Team

After strong starts on raft racing’s largest stage—the 2013 International Rafting Federation White Water Rafting World Championshipsneither the U.S. men’s or women’s national whitewater raft teams could match their early successes at the four-day, four-race event on New Zealand‘s North Island. The men started strong, barely missing the podium with a fourth-place finish in the Sprint race followed by fifth in the Head-to-Head race. Meanwhile, the U.S. women took ninth in the Sprint, and then took third in a fiercely contested Head-to-Head race. (Click HERE to read more.)

Though the accumulated points from the string of top-10 finishes poised both U.S. teams for world title contention, the weekend’s final two contests—a Slalom and a Downriver race—didn’t shake out as well. The women took ninth in the Slalom (pictured below, reaching to make a gate), and ninth in the Downriver race as well. Their overall points put them at seventh overall in the world, with New Zealand claiming the women’s title, followed by Slovakia in second and the Czech Republic in third.


Courtesy US women’s raft team

The men’s team was feeling good after its first of two Slalom runs, until the team members were told from judges that they missed a gate. Though they protested the time infraction, a fast second run didn’t do enough to put the US men above 13th place. The final Downriver race featured a Le Mans start, with each team racing to its boat in timed intervals down a technical stretch of the Rangitikei River. “The start was chaos,” says US team paddler Jordan Kurt-Mason. ” Then it was basically just a series of blind turns, where you had to pick a channel and hope for the best.”  The U.S. finished in seventh, which was good enough for seventh overall, while the top three teams in the Downriver race—Brazil on top, followed by Japan and New Zealand—also ended the championships in that order overall. The Canadian men’s and women’s teams both finished 10th overall with the men making an appearance on the podium early on with a second-place finish in the Sprint.  Click HERE for more info and full results.

“In general, we felt good about it,” Kurt-Mason said about the U.S. men’s top-10 finish. “We were so close, especially in the Sprint, plus the competition’s getting that much better. The Brazilian team was telling us how they practice twice a day, 360 days a year.”

The U.S. women were also pleased with their top-10 finish given the level of competition: “We did better than we expected amongst teams that are so talented and have been paddling together for years,” said U.S. paddler Cristin Zimmer, noting it was this U.S. women’s team’s first international competition. They still reveled in their bronze medal finish in the Head-to-Head, however, looking back at the key first-round race with the Japanese as the highlight of the championships.

Watch the video of the U.S. women, below, who entered as a low seed after a slow Sprint-race start, facing the No. 2 Japanese women, and read Zimmer’s account of the Head-to-Head race below.

“I don’t think any woman on our team of seasoned paddlers had ever been so nervous sitting in an eddy—the Japanese women are practically professional athletes whose sponsors pay for them to train six days a week year round, and compete and win internationally all the time.

Yet we knew that we had nothing to lose.

With the guidance of our coach, Todd Toledo, we decided that our strategy would have to be an explosive start to keep us neck-and-neck: Make contact with their boat, upset their powerful pace, and mess with their heads a little. And we did just that.

But they never let up and continued to ram our boat from behind. They tried to pass twice, both times we battled to keep our lead. They drafted us into the last rapid just beyond which the finish line awaited. The rapid consisted of what we referred to as the “runaway truck ramp,” a narrow sweeping chute of water only wide enough for one raft surrounded so thickly by low-hanging jungle that it looks like a dark tunnel, but then suddenly emerges into the sunshine as it pushes you hard right over a flaky 5-foot drop into a cliff wall. You must stay off the wall, make a hard left, and then boof another 5-foot weir (a rapid made much more difficult when a raft is trying to ram you off-line in one last-ditch effort to pass).

The Japanese efforts were to no avail though, and amidst the chaos of the bumper-boat ride they actually knocked themselves sideways over the weir and dump-trucked. After crossing the finish line we were so excited that we missed the takeout eddy! With that confidence boost we progressed on to the quarter-and semifinals, eventually racing Brazil for the bronze medal. We loved the raw power, strategy and psychology of battling head-to-head against other strong and equally determined women-and have a few bruises to prove it.”

— CLICK HERE for more from the U.S. men's team and HERE for the U.S. women's team