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While many of Colorado’s half a million annual white-water rafters are simply trying to avoid a tumble into the Arkansas River, a small number of them have a more aggressive goal: to finish first. In the growing sport of raft racing, teams of four or six maneuver 12- to 13-foot boats through roiling white water—sometimes as challenging as the Class IV rapids through Gore Canyon on the Colorado River—while sprinting through slalom gates like Olympic skiers and kayakers. Although it’s still at a nascent stage, white-water raft racing has become more popular over the past decade or so thanks to a nationwide appetite for adventure sports. About 15 official raft-racing teams exist in the United States, and the Centennial State boasts 10 of them, including the Colorado Women’s Raft Team (CWRT, pictured), which won the 2016 six-person national women’s championship at the FIBArk Festival in Salida.
This month, the team hopes to claim yet another title, this time at the World Rafting Championship in Miyoshi City, Japan. (Because the rafting season is so short—in Colorado, it lasts roughly from May to August—it’s easier for teams to compete on and fundraise for the national circuit one year and worlds the next.) At worlds, paddlers will compete in four events. The first, the sprint, is essentially a time trial: Each team tries to finish a set course as quickly as possible, with no other rafts on the river. In the head to head, two boats race; conversely, the only opponents during the slalom course are the eight to 14 gates. (This event—CWRT’s best, in part because it tests skill more than speed—requires boats to pass through the gates in numerical order without touching the poles.) The last and longest event is the downriver race, when several teams chase each other down the river for roughly 20 to 60 minutes. The team that crosses the finish line first receives 400 points, which can make a significant difference in the final standings considering competitors can only rack up 1,000 points across all events.
CWRT believes it has a good shot at making the podium at worlds, thanks to a team full of seasoned paddlers—among them Jennifer Cook and Avery Potter, who serve as guides on the Colorado and Arkansas rivers, respectively, and Tana Deklevar, who, at only 30, is one of few women to have guided on the renowned Class V sections of the Upper Youghiogheny River in Maryland. “Colorado’s rivers play a big role in raft racing’s success here,” says CWRT member Evangeline Lambert. “It’s easier for us to find support and paddlers.” Many of the women have competed at worlds before, placing seventh in 2013 with a different team, so they’ll be looking to better that finish. But even if they don’t, they’ll be coming home to world-class rapids—and community.
Watch The World Rafting Championship
When: October 3 to 9
How: The International Rafting Federation runs a live feed on its home page and sometimes posts shorter clips to its Facebook page.