By Eugene Buchanan
Don't think rafting is international? Don't tell that to the 48 men's and women's teams from 32 different countries gathered in Turrialba, Costa Rica, for the 2011 World Rafting Championships on the Pacuare River.
Perhaps it was the Brazil team that felt most at home in the Carnival-like atmosphere of the opening day parade, featuring local school kids carrying the various countries' banners in front of teams
dancing, singing, drumming, blowing horns and carrying on as if they were throwing beads at Mardi Gras.
And that's just how local host Rafael Gallo, president of Rios Tropicales and the International Rafting Federation, envisioned it: flags from countries as varied as Italy and Indonesia, the Czech Republic and Colombia, and Slovakia and the sombrero-wearing Mexicans, waving in the breeze with thousands of fans cheering on.
"It's come together very well," says Gallo of the rafting world's biggest event returning to Costa Rica for the first time since Project Raft held its international competition here in 1991 and the Camel International Whitewater challenge visited in 1998. "It's been a lot of work getting the athlete village ready, but it's worth it for the section of river everyone gets to run."
Indeed, the event is being contested on the Class IV-V Upper Pacuare, upstream of the classic two-day run that has put Costa Rican river running on the map. Warm water, gradient courtesy of the nearby Turrialba volcano and a boulder-choked riverbed promise to test the world's best.
If any team is ready for it, it's the men's and women's Teva-sponsored U.S. teams. Fresh from a fourth-place finish at the last four-man Worlds in Holland in 2010, the men's team is comprised of veteran guides from Vail, Colo.'s Timberline Tours. They're especially looking forward to Saturday's head-to-head Sprint, hoping to repeat the gold-place showing they earned in the event in Ecuador in 2005.
"It's tougher and more technical, which is what we're good at and what we're used to," says U.S. team captain Chris "Mongo" Reeder. "We're better at that since we all come from a guiding background."
Joining Reeder on the U.S. team are veterans Mike Reid, Todd Toledo, Seth Mason, Andrew Bishop and Joe Sialiano, with Jordan Mason as an alternate. All are guides for Vail's Timberline.
The team has seen the river at all levels during its practice week, with rains bringing it up and sunshine bringing it back down. The weekend's levels are expected to be somewhere in between. "It's a long downriver course, which also suits us," adds Reeder. "We've been training pretty hard on the Colorado and Eagle rivers, so feel like we're in good shape."
The women's team consists of captain Jess Mason, Sarah Hamilton, Molly Etters, Ronni Malson, Brooke Magstadt and Misty Cumings, and alternate Karah Frizzle, also all from Colorado. Coming off a fifth-place showing last year in Holland in the four-person event, and an eighth-place finish the year before in the six-person division in Bosnia, like the men, they too like their chances on the technical Pacuare.
"We love the course," says Hamilton. "We're especially psyched on the longer downriver course they have this year, which plays into our strengths. It's high-quality, continuous whitewater, which is what we've been training for."
They'll have their work cut out for them trying to top the Canada team, which took first in Bosnia, as well as Japan, which took second, and the Czech republic, which paddled to third. "Japan is fully sponsored, so they'll be tough," says Hamilton. "And the Czech girls are strong in slalom and the Kiwis are tough all around. It should be a great race."
Indeed, both teams are off to a good start, the men taking ninth in Friday's Sprint event, which determines who they'll face in they'll face in Saturday's head-to-head race. They'll face Denmark. The women's fourth-place finish means they earn a bye, and will face the winner of Bulgaria and Hungary in round two.