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Pagosans compete for U.S. in world rafting event

Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Mary Kurt-Mason Jordan Kurt-Mason, left, and Seth Kurt-Mason are members of the USA Raft Team and are now in New Zealand, readying for the World Rafting Championships. The Kurt-Mason brothers are graduates of Pagosa Springs High School.

Photo courtesy Mary Kurt-Mason
Jordan Kurt-Mason, left, and Seth Kurt-Mason are members of the USA Raft Team and are now in New Zealand, readying for the World Rafting Championships. The Kurt-Mason brothers are graduates of Pagosa Springs High School.

Seth and Jordan Kurt-Mason will compete at the international level together for the first time at the world rafting championships in Rotorua and Kawerau, New Zealand, starting next Monday. The brothers, raised in Pagosa, are members of the six-person U.S. Raft Team.

Approximately 70 teams of elite rafters will participate in the international competition starting next week. The R6 (six rafters in a boat, as opposed to the R4 event with four) event is put on by the International Rafting Federation and held every two years. Teams that attend the World Rafting Championships are selected by national rafting federations.

Four disciplines or events constitute rafting competitions: the sprint, head-to-head, slalom and downriver. Events are won by time and each race is weighted differently to constitute a combined ending score — the sprint accounts for 10 percent, the head-to-head 20, the slalom 30 and the downriver 40.

Seth, Jordan and their parents, Lindsey and Mary Kurt-Mason, all agreed that the team excels at the sprint and head-to-head portions of the competition. The sprint involves hard paddling over a short distance, usually lasting two to three minutes, while the head to head pits two teams against each other, racing down a section of rapids, in a short dash to a finish line. The sprint and head-to-head competitions in New Zealand will be held on the Kaituna River. Although the team is strongest in these two events, the skills required to be successful in these events also translate to quality performance in the slalom and downriver portions of the competition.

The slalom is the most technically challenging event, demanding high levels of technique and teamwork to navigate rafts through 12 gates in powerful rapids. The Tarawera River is the venue for the slalom this year. The downriver, worth the largest percentage of points, is a one-hour race along a designated section of continuous rapids; downriver success demands technical skills and a high level of endurance. This year’s downriver will be held on the Rangitaiki River. Both brothers explained how body size and shape play into team effectiveness at events — because the U.S. team is physically larger than many other teams, strength and power helps it excel at short sprints, but can slow it down in the downriver.

The SUN caught up with both Seth and Jordan to talk more about the upcoming championships and their involvement in raft racing.

Both brothers spoke about how growing up in Pagosa as part of an active, outdoor family influenced and directed their passion for rafting.

“Growing up, we did a lot of rafting trips as a family, exploring whitewater on the San Juan, the Chama, the Piedra and the Animas,” said Seth. “Ultimately, I just fell in love with rivers and rafting.”

“We went on a lot of fantastic adventures as a family, which really changed the direction of my life to be outdoors focused,” explained Jordan. “The Pagosa area has a lot of technical and challenging whitewater, so nothing ever got stale.”

As young adults, the brothers worked as raft guides in the area, furthering their skills and passion for being on the water.

“It was kind of the ultimate job, it didn’t really feel like work,” said Jordan.

Seth also explained that growing up in a family that valued the outdoors, and loved landscapes and the environment, made it seem more reasonable and attainable to compete in an extreme sport like rafting.

“We got/get a lot of support from our parents. They understand because it’s also their passion,” said Seth.

An interview with the Kurt-Mason parents, Lindsey and Mary, also revealed how Seth and Jordan’s growing up in Pagosa, and with an outdoor family, influenced their passion for rafting.

“The first trip we took that really got both Seth and Jordan hooked was a trip down the Taos box,” they said, “it was a really exciting day.”

The brothers also relayed how the support of both the rafting community and the community in Pagosa has helped them reach such a high level of competition in rafting. Seth talked about the help of generous friends and family willing to watch pets and put up the team around the country and the world. Their support, he explained, has made it a lot easier to compete. Jordan specifically mentioned local friend and role model Toby Rohwer, who owns Pagosa Outside. Jordan told The SUN how Rohwer initially got him into raft racing, taking him to his first competition.

“It was the ultimate confluence between my love of the outdoors and the river and competition and athleticism,” said Jordan. After his first raft competition on the Colorado River, Jordan asked Seth to join a team to compete in the same event in Gore Canyon the following year. Later, Seth got on the U.S. men’s raft team and has now been on the team for seven years — this is Jordan’s first year as an official team member.

Being on the water is very important to the brothers. When asked what he enjoys most about rafting, Jordan explained that it allows him to connect with nature, noting that he also loves the inherent challenge in rafting. Seth discussed his love of being on the water more in the context of being part of the U.S. raft team.

“It’s a singular experience to be in a boat with five other very skilled men,” said Seth. “It lends to a kind of confidence that is hard to come by. I know that no matter what is coming around the bend, it’ll be fine.” Seth went on to discuss that the best part of racing with the team is that it creates and excuse to travel, taking him to places he otherwise would not have gone, such as South Korea and Bosnia.

Seth and Jordan also relayed how excited they are to have an opportunity to compete at such a high level while representing the United States. But, when asked what he was most looking forward to about the championships, Seth said, “Winning of course!”

The Japanese and Brazilian teams, along with the Czech Republic and New Zealand, will be the toughest competitors to beat.

“We’ve put a lot of sweat, tears, and, luckily, not a lot of blood into training this year, so we’re excited to get down there and just let loose,” said Seth.

The team trains year-round, individually and together, on and off the water. Seth explained that team training mirrors the four championship events. A lot of training is done on the Colorado river close to Vail, the Kurt-Mason parents told The SUN, but some is done in a pool or on lakes. Since the team excels at short sprint events, they train the hardest for these, paddling very hard for 15 seconds to three minutes with weight in their boat. They also do long endurance paddles, working to maintain 70-80 strokes a minute. Power on the team makes explosive starts a big strength, allowing the U.S. to perform well year after year in the sprint and head-to-head events.

At the competition, all teams are given the same boats to use; teams are not allowed to use their own boats. Before the competition, the rafts are tested for weight and pressure to ensure fairness. This year, the boats will be Incept brand rafts, which the Kurt-Mason parents explained handle differently than most rafts used in the United States.

“Wherever you paddle, you’ll go,” they explained. “The boats have a really slick bottom and don’t catch.”

Luckily, the Kurt-Mason parents own an Incept raft for personal use, which father Lindsey purchased a while back. The team has been training in this raft in order to get used to the handling subtleties of these particular boats.

During interviews, both Seth and Jordan talked about the unique opportunity to be on an internationally competitive team with their brother.

“I’m really excited to raft with Seth,” said Jordan. “It’s not something typically experienced with a sibling. We’re all friends on the team, but having my brother there, it just makes it that much more of an incredible experience.”

“It’s awesome to be in a boat with my brother and have team camaraderie be part of our relationship. It’s neat to rely on him and feel like he’s relying on me in a different way than we do in day-to-day situations,” explained Seth.

The brothers currently live in Carbondale, Colo. Seth is a hydrologist at S.K. Mason Environmental, and Jordan is a math teacher at Glenwood Springs High School.

The U.S. rafting team is made up of hard working men who all hold full-time jobs, working to train and fund-raise in their spare time. To find out more information, or to support the U.S. raft team, visit http://usaraft.org/. The official 2013 world rafting championships website can be found at http://www.2013raftingworldsnz.com/.

Dana.Hayward@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on November 14, 2013.