By Eugene Buchanan
After three days of tight competition at the World Rafting Championships on Costa Rica's Pacuare River, the overall title remained up for grabs entering the event’s final day—Monday, Oct. 10, for the downriver race—with seven men's teams and five women's teams still capable of winning the overall crown.
The Teva U.S. Men’s Team, with ninth-place finishes in the sprint and slalom events and a fifth in the head-to-head, had shot at the title, as did the U.S. Women’s Team, who had tallied a fourth in sprint, seventh in head-to-head and fifth in slalom. But Monday was a day for Japan, with both their men's and women's teams stroking to victory on the Class V upper Pacuare. The downriver victory earned the Japanese men the overall title for the first time in history, and the Japanese women a second-place overall showing.
"The water levels cooperated great," says event organizer and host Rafael Gallo, eager to show off his world-class Pacuare River to the world for the first time since the Camel International Whitewater Challenge competed here in 1999 and Project RAFT held its international raft rally here in 1991. "Rains brought the water up for [Sunday’s] slalom, and it dropped back down again [Monday] for us to hold the downriver portion."
While they had all the best intentions of bettering their sixth-place showing from the last world championships in Bosnia in 2009, and third-place overall finish in Ecuador in 2005, the U.S. Men's Team—mostly guides for Vail, Colo.'s Timberline Tours—could only paddle to a seventh-place finish overall.
The U.S. Men’s Team, led by Chris "Mongo" Reeder, saw their best result in the head-to-head event, where they finished fifth.
"We hoped we'd do better," says Reeder, whose team trained throughout the winter by paddling a raft full of rocks in a pool, and even tying it off to a giant bungee cord. "But there are a lot a great teams from other countries. Japan had a first, second, third and fifth-place showing, and is paddling really well." Taking second overall for the men was the Czech Republic, with Slovenia in third.
The U.S. Women's Team, also out of the Vail, Colo., area, also finished seventh place overall, behind the Czech Republic in first, Japan in second and the Netherlands in third. "It was a great event," says team member Sarah Hamilton. "We could have won it with a strong finish [Monday], but Japan and the Czechs paddled a really great race. Our team hasn't paddled together very long so we'll be back even stronger next time."
By all accounts the event was a huge success, not only in terms of competition featuring 29 men's teams and 19 women's teams from 34 countries, but also by bringing international recognition to one of the world's most pristine whitewater rivers, which is still facing threats from hydropower projects. The Project RAFT event in 1991 helped stop the Dos Montanas dam from going in downstream, and it is Gallo's hope that showcasing it to the world again will help curtail future potential projects.
"There's still the possibility of a dam at the base of the upper section, which would be a travesty," says Gallo. "We're going to accomplish our mission of preserving it by putting the Pacuare on the international map."
See more on the U.S. Team's training leading up to the championships HERE.
2. Czech Republic
1. Czech Republic
4. New Zealand
5. Great Britain
Men: Sprint: 9th; Head-to-head: 5th; Slalom: 9th; Downriver: 7th
Women: Sprint: 4th; Head-to-head: 7th; Slalom: 5th; Downriver: 6th