Members of the Timberline Women and Behind The 8 Ball rafting teams, who will represent the U.S. at the World Rafting Championships next week, are the definition of average Vail, Colorado residents. They guide rafts, work on ambulance crews, and patrol the slopes by day, waiting tables at night to make rent. They fanatically train for a fringe sport--setting a world record on the side. They sold visors and coffee mugs to earn their airfare to Korea, where the International Rafting Federation will hold the 2007 world championships on the Naerinchon River June 29-July 2.
Coming off crushing victories at last week's national championships held in their backyard--on the Class IV Numbers section of the Arkansas River near Buena Vista, Colorado--the U.S. teams seem poised to take on the stalwart (read: well sponsored) competition at worlds. Both teams saw returning international competitors this year, and a rigorous off-season training program designed by Topper Hagerman at Howard Head Sports Medicine Center. On-boat training started as soon as the ice melted on the Eagle River.
"I think we've got a really strong team, and if we play our cards right we can finish in the top three," said Lisa Reeder, who, along with teammate Dawn Vogeler, is heading into her fifth world championship. Jody Swoboda and Lizzie Burnett have also competed at the international level, with Jaime Passchier, Jess McGowan, who will guide the boat, and alternate Kathleen Garcia rounding out the women's team.
Members of the Behind The 8 Ball, which set a world record for longest distance paddled in a 24-hour period in an inflatable, man-powered craft (194.21 river miles on the Colorado) last summer, are equally confident.
The team (which includes Vail-based Timberline Tours guides Brent Redden, Chip Carney, Olli Dose, Chris "Mongo" Reeder, Todd Toledo, Mike Reid, and alternate Seth Kurt-Mason) began competing in 2001. They bested the race favorite Canadian men to win the head-to-head sprint at 2005 worlds on Ecuador's Quijos River (world competition includes sprint, slalom and downriver events). Fifth-place finishes in the other two events earned the men bronze behind Russia and the Czech Republic for the best-ever U.S. raft racing finish.
"Rafting is a club sport in pretty much any town in the Czech Republic, kind of like softball here," Reeder says, adding some teams, like the Russians, are military trained or sponsored pros. "Japan has one big corporate sponsor that pays the whole team's salary just to train and go to races."
All of which, he says, sweetens the victory when they win.
The women's team finds themselves in the same proverbial boat.
"We can't even find a clothing company or someone in the whitewater industry to give us a splash jacket, let alone financial support," says Lisa Reeder, who is part owner of Timberline with her husband, Chris. "But we're not intimidated. We get fully outfitted, we look just like they do, but we probably had to buy our stuff at cost as opposed to getting it for free."
The team gathered for the first time in 1998, under the guide stick of then-Timberline guide Kathryn "Bugs" Bugby, for nationals that year on Gore Canyon, a demanding Class V stretch of the Colorado above State Bridge. "We raced that event in a commercial raft," Lisa Reeder recalls. "We didn't realize there was such a thing as a race boat. We got crushed."
In their new custom Sotar, the Timberline Women competed in their first worlds on West Virginia's Gauley River in 2001, and finished sixth overall at the 2005 worlds (the event is held every other year--the qualifier for this year's worlds was on Gore Canyon last August).
In a sport that garners little international attention, or monetary reward, travel makes the rigorous training worth it for many of these athletes.
"This is an opportunity not too many people get and I really enjoy being out on the water," says women's guide McGowan, who quit her engineering job to train with the team in Vail in the months leading up to worlds. "I can always design bridges and delineate wetlands but guiding the national raft team doesn't come across my plate everyday."