Sprint finish:
U.S. men's raft team takes home silver

To be the best, you've got to beat the best.
The United States men's whitewater raft team knows this competition maxim all too well, having defended its title as the U.S.'s top raft team for the past seven years.

So the Vail, Colo.-based team wasn't fazed when it was time to match the defending sprint (and overall) world champions from Brazil in the head-to-head, quarterfinal round of the International Rafting Federation World Championships, May 17-24 in Bosnia.

"The mantra of the group is that no matter what happens, you never quit," says U.S. team captain Mike Reid.

The never-say-die attitude carried the group of amateur athletes through it all: ice-breaking winter training sessions on the Colorado River, fundraising efforts to travel to the Balkans for three R-6 format race events spread over a week, and smooth runs past Australia's and then New Zealand's team in the first two sprint rounds to set up a bout with the Brazilians.

"The crux move was going through these pyramid haystack waves in the rapid to a big diagonal where if you didn't hit it, there were two big boil-ey eddies that became very significant in all the races," Reid said the sprint finale on the Class-III section of the Vrbas River near Banja Luka. "That was the make-it-or-break-it point; you needed to be right on line because there was only room for one boat and if you had a bad angle or were off line, you could get passed."

Sure enough, the Brazilians were a little off, got sucked in the river-right eddy and Reid's squad capitalized. The U.S men carried the momentum to nail the dominant line in an impressive semifinal win over Russia.

Unfortunately the U.S. couldn't continue down on the thin line in the finals with Great Britain.

"[Great Britain] had the lane choice, executed and they shut us down—they deserved to win," Reid says. "We beat them in Ecuador [at the 2005 worlds], so it was cool to see those same guys win it."

Having raced in the past four worlds, Reid's seen other teams along with the Brits grow at the highest echelon of the sport—most notably so outside the sport's European cradle with its tradition of whitewater competition.

"The first worlds I went to in 2003, there were five teams that could win, now there are 20 quality teams that could contend if things went their way," Reid says.

Based on their sprint finish, the U.S. men were grouped with a pod of six championship contenders in the downriver race on the clear-blue canyon waters of the scenic Tara River. Tight jockeying for position, most notably with the line-blocking Austrian squad, led to a close sixth-place finish, a mere 14 seconds out of first in a race that lasted nearly an hour.

"Hey, we ran with the fastest and we know we can run with them," Reid says. "Different race, different circumstances, different result."

The Tara's flat, Class II-III aspect favored teams like the Hungarians, composed of K-1 sprint athletes, who emerged out of a less competitive pod to take the downriver win.

A podium finish was still in sight, but the final slalom event also favored paddlers with technical slalom backgrounds—versus a big-water setting better suited to U.S. teams with decades of professional, Class IV-V guiding experience.

"The atmosphere was insane, probably 5-7,000 people, like nothing you've ever seen, at night under the lights, it was electric," Reid says of the slalom's raucous riverside bleachers on the Vrbas. "The course was very easy, but there were hard maneuvers."

Out of Gate 8, the U.S. men purled instead of engaging a wave, missed the ferry move, and thus missed an all-important gate and with it, a shot at the podium they last reached in 2005 (third in Ecuador).

A 13th place slalom finish put the U.S. men at sixth overall. Brazil again won the overall competition, followed by Japan in second and Great Britain in third.

The U.S. women's team also had to stay afloat above an even deeper and wider talent pool. Women's captain Lisa Reeder has seen six world championships and noted not only how broad the female competition was, featuring a record 21 teams, but also how far it's progressed.

"That's really changed over the last four years," Reeder says. "It used to be a few good teams and you could make a mistake and still be in there, as far as points and finishing, but now, it's hundredths of seconds within each other and you can go from second to eighth just like that."

Hopes were high for the women after posting a sprint time for a No. 7 seed into the head-to-head, after which they handily defeated the Danish team and went on to charge two boat lengths ahead of the Canadian women in the second round. But then they hit the crux eddy.

"The caliber of competition is so good that you can't make any mistakes at all, other teams will capitalize," says Reeder, whose team finished seventh in the sprint event.

That same Canadian team went on to use a slalom victory to earn an overall world title, followed by Japan in second and the Czech Republic in third.

Meanwhile, the U.S. women passed three teams to take second in their downriver heat behind the Russians. Unfortunately, it wasn't the fastest pod of boats competing, resulting in a ninth-place finish the women matched with another ninth in the slalom.

"We had a great first run where we were in fourth," Reeder said of the slalom. "But then we surfed out of second gate and the eighth on our second run."
The women finished eighth overall.

"I'm disappointed, I got home and everyone said congrats and I guess eighth is good, but we were good enough to do better," Reeder says.

The feeling of unfinished business will have to stoke the U.S. teams to continue competing for the next two years; the next R-6 worlds is not until 2011 in Costa Rica. In the meantime, both men's and women's teams said they'll field teams at this summer's nationals, August 14-16 on Maryland's ASCI course—an R-4 format event to determine the U.S. entrants at the 2010, R-4 worlds in the Netherlands. — Dave Shively

— Visit usraftteamco.com, usaraftassociation.com or intraftfed.com for more details and full results.