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Tahoe powers U.S. raft team

Mary Thompson

Being the best in the world isn’t always an easy title to keep.

At least, that’s the lesson the United States women’s rafting team learned this summer when they lost that title to a New Zealand team in the annual Camel Whitewater Challenge – a race they had won two years in a row.

The whitewater challenge is an international rafting race down some of the world’s most exotic and challenging rivers. The challenge consists of three events: a short, flat water sprint against the clock, a slalom course that requires precise guiding through a single rapid and a six-mile down-river race.



Add Class V rapids, the most difficult rapid that can be navigated by whitewater paddlers, and the setting becomes extreme.

This year’s competition took place on South Africa’s Orange River. Located inside a game preserve on the edge of the Kalahari desert, the Orange’s silty waters had never been rafted before the competition and posed an element of surprise to the athletes.



But South Lake Tahoe resident Sue Norman, who helps drive the women’s boat, said that wasn’t the problem for the U.S. team.

“We got complacent and didn’t train as hard this year,” she said. “Because of our busy schedules, we didn’t spend as much time together as a team. We knew, going there, that we weren’t as strong as a team as we had been in the past.”

The team, consisted of a mix of women from various regions of Northern California – Beth Rypins, a former cook and talk show host; Kelly Kalafatich, who worked as a stunt double for Meryl Streep in the movie “River Wild”; Juliet Wiscombe, a second-grade school teacher in Oakland, Calif.; Brooke Winger, the top-ranked paddler in women’s U.S. freestyle kayaking; Heather Snow, a veteran river guide and ski patroller; and Norman, a U.S. Forest Service hydrologist.

Despite their different lifestyles, the teammates hold one thing in common – a passion for the river.

That passion was the recipe for success for the team, which came together in 1989. Since then, the women have held their title in the whitewater community as the best in the world.

That is, until the women from New Zealand made their debut on the Orange River in August.

“They were strong in the flat water and very competent in the whitewater,” Norman said. “Their team consisted of people with outrigger paddling backgrounds, a freestyle kayaker and Class V river guides.”

They got their first taste of the New Zealand team’s strength in the sprint competition.

Norman said the New Zealand women placed well enough to put them in the ranks of the men’s division, but not leaving them a big enough point spread to allow for mistakes in the other events.

And no mistakes were made in the slalom run. The U.S. team showed precision in the slalom by making a gate that no other women’s team tried for.

But the down-river was the test of true grit. In head-to-head competition, the two teams paddled in sight of each other for six miles.

“They pulled ahead of us,” Norman said. “And we just waited for the mistake they never made.”

On the long plane ride back to the states, the team coordinated its tactics for the whitewater challenge scheduled in February 2000 on Chile’s massive Futaleafu River. The next day, they were back on their home river – the South Fork of the American River – fine-tuning their techniques.

Norman, who frequently paddles a canoe from Camp Richardson to the Taylor Creek outlet as a training session, said she’s also adding weight lifting to her routine to build mass. Bulk for Norman, the lightweight of the group at 120 pounds, translates into raw power.

“It’s all about power in the raft,” she said. “There’s no glide to it and it feels like you’re sticking your paddle in cement every time you make a stroke.”

Heather Snow, a winter resident of South Lake Tahoe, agreed saying it takes superior fitness to master the sport.

“It’s power and stamina,” she said. “And cardio comes into play for paddling through the flat water.”

It also takes compatibility with teammates.

Snow, who has competed twice on the team, was filling the spot for a regular team member who took time off from competition for personal reasons.

Norman said part of the reason for losing the teammate was a scheduling conflict. The other was caused by a personality conflict.

“You’ve got six people, who are used to being leaders, trying to work together in an extremely competitive environment and in dangerous situations,” she said. “It’s hard not to get (mad) at someone when they do something that could result in your getting hurt.”


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