An impressive run on the Upper Gauley River landed a pair of West Virginians on the women’s U.S. Whitewater Raft Team, where they can expect more thrilling races.
In September, after posting a come-from-behind win in the rafting division during the annual The Animal Upper Gauley River Race — a 9-mile, experts-only downriver sprint through some of the most challenging whitewater in America — Jo-Beth Stamm and Koreen Padjen were invited to take on another challenge — to become members of the women’s U.S. Whitewater Raft Team during the World Whitewater Rafting Championship, on the Citarik River in Indonesia, less than three months later.
“I was absolutely thrilled to be invited,” said Stamm, 33, who has worked as a guide on the New and Gauley rivers for the past 10 years when not on the job as an emergency room nurse. “It was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the sport and see how big it has become around the rest of the world.”
Stamm and Padjen, both of Fayetteville, were part of an Adventures on the Gorge raft team during the September race. The captain of the U.S. Whitewater Raft Team, which also had a boat on the river during the Upper Gauley Race, was impressed with their performance in the event, and asked them to join the national team.
“We trained with [Colorado resident] Julie Sutton, the head of the women’s team, who guides on the Gauley River in the fall,” Stamm said. “After the rest of the team left, Koreen and I trained together, to get ready for the Worlds. More than anything, you’re training to learn the intricacies of the race stroke, which is different from a whitewater paddling stroke. You have to develop a powerful stroke and maintain it for long periods of time.”
Members of the women’s team raised funds from private sponsors, which helped make the trip to the international competition possible.
“But it didn’t cover everything,” Stamm said. “We had to do some out-of-pocket self-funding to make the trip happen.”
After flying to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in late November and traveling to the Citarik River, the team resumed practice, took part in pre-race events and an opening ceremony, spent some time socializing with contestants from the 22 countries taking part in the championships, and prepared for a series of races: sprint, slalom, downriver and head-to-head events that took place during the first week in December.
Between events and practice sessions, U.S. team members paddled the subtropical river for fun.
“I packed a little shredder [inflatable whitewater catamaran] in my suitcase, and when not training with the team, Koreen and I had a lot of fun with that.”
“We had seven people on the team and used the six best suited for a particular event to be the crew,” said Stamm, who competed in the head-to-head downriver race. “Head-to-head racing is very exciting. The Citarik is a shallow river, with very technical whitewater, kind of like the Youghiogheny River, in Maryland. It has mostly Class III rapids, with one Class IV with a good-sized drop that was a lot of fun. When you’re racing head-to-head, sometimes both rafts are heading to spots that are only one raft wide, and a lot of times, the rafts would collide as they got to the same place.”
Competitors use identical rafts inflated to identical pressures to help level the playing field. The teams must supply their own paddles, personal flotation devices and helmets.
While competition was intense, when competitors gathered off the river, the spirit was collegial.
“People there were competitive, but so friendly. They were happy to share training tips and give paddling advice,” said Stamm. “In some countries, whitewater raft racing is a very big deal, while it’s kind of a fringe sport in the U.S. Some of the other teams train year-round, and some teams are paid.”
The U.S. women’s team ended up finishing eighth in overall standings, just behind Russia and just ahead of Australia. The top three finishers were the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Japan.
The U.S. men’s team finished 16th.
Stamm and Padgen hope their first taste of international competition won’t be their last.
Five Adventures on the Gorge guides, including Stamm, Padgen and two other guides who were aboard the company’s raft during September’s Upper Gauley Animal race, already are training for the 2016 national whitewater championship, to be held in April on Oregon’s section of the Klamath River. The winner of that event will represent the United States at next year’s World Rafting Championship, to be held on an artificial whitewater stream in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ capital city.
“We all know each other and have all guided together,” said Stamm. In addition to Stamm and Padgen, members of the Sweets of the East team, as it is now known, include Margaret Cadmus, Sherry Spiker and Hannah Vogt.
While six-person teams competed during the world championships in Indonesia, next year’s international competition will involve four-person crews, with a fifth alternate paddler.
“Right now, we’re meeting once a week for paddle practice, and doing individual training for upper body and core strength,” Stamm said. “By February, we should be paddling together two or three times a week, sometimes at a pool.”
Stamm said she is anxious to make a repeat visit to the world championship race.
“It’s very competitive, but it’s definitely a fun scene, too,” she said.
West Virginia’s Gauley River was the site of the World Whitewater Rafting Championship in 2001.