From the banks of the Yampa
Steamboat’s summer Olympian Rich Weiss battled the odds and the ice to reach the peak of his sport
Steamboat Springs — It took a sledgehammer for Steamboat Springs kayaker Rich Weiss to make it to the Summer Olympics.
The memory drew a chuckle from Tom Steitz, the longtime Winter Olympic coach, as he recalled the determined kid who willed his way from the snowy wonderland of Steamboat Springs to two Summer Olympic appearances.
Steitz was paddling in Steamboat one afternoon when Weiss showed up on the river’s shore, looking for a coach to help him achieve his goals.
“We paddled all year round,” Steitz said. “That actually meant we’d go out there with a sledgehammer in the winter to keep a little piece of water open on the river.”
They’d slip into the Old Town Hot Springs after hours on other winter days and work in the pool there — back and forth, back and forth, doing anything possible to ensure nothing as trivial as 400 inches of snow and -20-degree temperatures would freeze out Weiss’s grandiose Olympic dreams.
The flat pool water bore little resemblance to the rushing courses Weiss encountered at the 1992 and 1996 summer games. It looked even less like the treacherous Pacific Northwest river that took his life in 1997.
“If you ever asked, ‘What are we doing here?’” Steitz recalled, “he’d just smile and point to his bicep. That was his way of saying we were getting in shape for whitewater.”
Smiling and pointing to his bicep — sign language of the athletic set — was often as talkative as Weiss got. He was quiet, but focused, out of place but determined to join the ranks of Steamboat Olympians, doing so far differently than any of the skiers or snowboarders the town has produced.
Now, nearly two decades after his death, Weiss’s imprint on the town endures, as does his status as one of the few Steamboat summer Olympians.
Big trouble at Big Brother
It’s not that the friends of Rich Weiss — always “Richie” to them — can’t talk about what happened, or don’t know how it happened.
The basics are clear and they gladly gloss over the details
Weiss retired from serious competitive kayaking after his most successful Olympic stint, a sixth-place finish in the 1996 Atlanta Games. He trained hard for everything, of course, but really poured it on for that opportunity, moving to Atlanta in the years before the Games to train on the Ocoee River, the venue for the Olympic kayak slalom event.
The battle to be the country’s top paddler was fierce that summer, and Weiss won the U.S. Olympic Trials race on that river, assuring he’d be a major threat for a medal.
Afterward, he moved to Hood River, Oregon, with his wife, Rosi.
He and a friend, John Trujillo, set out to boat in late June 1997, squeezing in some runs ahead of a camp and a race in which they planned to participate. Rosi, six months pregnant, was driving a shuttle from the drop-off, on the White Salmon River, to a pickup spot six miles downstream.
The river was “technical and pushy,” according to an accident report that was compiled from eyewitness accounts. It was running high, at 2,000 cubic feet per second, but wasn’t at flood stage.
A 30-foot waterfall and rapids section named “Big Brother,” waited about a quarter of the way through the run. It loomed as the largest drop on that stretch of river but was not known as the most difficult.
The safe side of the falls for boaters in high water was the left side, away from a big hydraulic, a recirculating pool on the right side of the falls that churned and rumbled like a washing machine. It cycled back into a small cave dug out of the rock by thousands of years of pounding water.
It wasn’t easy, Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley said.
A training partner with Weiss, Shipley qualified for the Olympics three times, in ’92, ’96 and 2000. He traveled to Washington immediately after Weiss’s death to see the river and lend a hand at the camp.
He was there for the same race several years later, too, and kept an eye on the spot.
“In the ladies class, every woman except one got stuck where Richie did,” Shipley said. “Probably a third of the men made the same mistake, too. It’s not a hard one to make.”
Trujillo detailed the fateful day in 2013 in a blog published online at sprinterlife.com.
Put on edge by the high water, the pair stopped before Big Brother to scout it out. They saw the cave, Trujillo wrote, and they saw a route through — tight but possible.
“I told Rich I was running it,” he wrote. “He put on his big, Richie, ear-to-ear smile and said, ‘Good luck, I’ll watch from here.’”
Trujillo hit the small takeoff they’d identified and splashed down below. The roiling water flipped him, but he righted himself and pulled into an eddy. He looked back up at his friend and flashed a thumbs up.
Weiss waited, his hands in his lifejacket and his eyes surveying the run.
“One minute passed. Then two. Then three. At the time, it didn’t register, but looking back on that moment, I saw trepidation, something I had never seen in Rich before,” Trujillo wrote. “It looked as though he was considering walking around it.”
He didn’t. Instead, he smiled down at Trujillo, then began to paddle.
The next time Trujillo saw Weiss, he was offline, too far right and headed for trouble.
That day, June 25, 1997, Richie Weiss made a mistake at the Big Brother rapids.
Summer in Steamboat
Steamboat boasts having more Winter Olympians than any town in the nation. It’s sent more than 80 athletes to represent not just the United States, but a dozen other countries, and those athletes have brought home medals of every variety.
Given the ski jumps that loom over one end of downtown and the ski slopes lingering beyond the other, it’s not hard to see why.
Summer sports are a bit different, however, and the opportunities are dramatically fewer.
People run and swim, bike and paddle, but how good can someone get when there are only five reliably snow-free months per year?
Some people did manage to get really good at kayaking.
The Steamboat Springs of the 1990’s was a boom town for the sport and home to some of the best paddlers in the nation.
“Steamboat was a big hub of whitewater paddling and river paddling,” said Eugene Buchanan, editor of Paddler magazine. “When I moved Paddler here in 1992, we looked at two towns in Colorado, Durango and Steamboat. We chose Steamboat, because it had a very vibrant paddling community.”
Wave Sport, a major kayaking manufacturer, was based in the area and local boaters, such as Weiss, added star power.
Then and now, Steamboat had and has some inherent shortcomings in being a kayaking hotspot.
The river rises to a thundering snowmelt-swollen crescendo — a kayaker’s dream — in April, May and June, but often drops to a trickle by August.
Still, while it’s a short window, it’s one that doesn’t disappoint and boaters who took advantage.
Now a 100-yard kayak slalom course is set up a few times each summer. Then, the slalom course stretched nearly half a mile, and it was used regularly.
Pete Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports, a river-focused sporting goods shop in downtown Steamboat, said he’s thrilled to have sold five new kayaks this summer. Twenty-five years ago, he’d sell 30 every season.
“It was unbelievable how kayaking boomed,” Van De Carr said. “I was selling them like crazy.”
That was the Steamboat Springs in which Richie Weiss paddled in his prime, the Steamboat that made being an Olympic kayaker from a ski town seem just a little more possible.
Weiss’s greatest moment kayaking may say as much about him as those stories about hammering out the ice on the Yampa River.
He was near the top of his sport heading into the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He’d compiled big results and podium finishes heading into the Olympics, and there, he paddled like one of the best in the world.
Two mistakes in his run slowed him down. He was penalized twice for touching the slalom gates, each carrying a five-second penalty.
Only, he didn’t touch both times. Video later revealed one of the penalties to be incorrect.
It was a consequential mistake. With the penalty, he was mired in 16th place. Without it, he would have won an Olympic bronze medal.
“He was a medalist, because he didn’t touch that gate,” Van De Carr said. “It was one of the most profound moments in his life, and misjudgment of his run kept him from obtaining that ultimate goal.”
How he handled it and how he’d handled a similar setback at the 1989 World Championships spoke far more than Weiss ever did.
His friends painted him as quiet and stoic. When it came to his disappointment about the Olympics, he barely said a word, at least not to them. He just got back to work.
They weren’t surprised.
Weiss wasn’t the guy you called for a wild night at the bars.
“He wasn’t a goofball, by any means,” Van De Carr said. “He was freaking focused.”
That focus first defined him in the classroom.
Weiss attended elementary school in Steamboat Springs, where his mother, Edith Weiss, still lives. He graduated high school from a New Mexico military academy and from there, racked up prestigious degrees. He went to Colorado School of Mines for undergrad, scooped up a master’s in hydrogeology from Penn State and earned a Ph.D. in geological sciences from University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The focus defined him on the water, too.
Shipley was 16 years old the first time he met Weiss, then the national champion and in Shipley’s wide eyes, a sports hero.
He summoned the nerve to ask Weiss if they could train together, and they did.
On their first day, Weiss put Shipley through a routine on the water. It initially proved exhausting but didn’t offer anything unexpected.
“I’d done workouts like that many times,” said Shipley, still so exhausted he got out of his boat and got sick behind some bushes. “When I got back to the water, he said, ‘OK, now you design a course.’ We were only half done. He was doing twice the workouts I had been.”
They worked out on the water twice a day nearly every day, mixing running and weightlifting into the schedule, as well.
It paid off for Weiss, and in 1993 he recorded his best international result, a second-place finish at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in Mezzana, Italy. He was the first American to earn a world championship medal in the sport.
That helped lead to Atlanta, where Weiss placed sixth in his second Olympic competition.
Even the coach who first offered Weiss help was surprised.
“I never foresaw spending the next six years with the kid, watching him grow and develop and become arguably the best in the world for several years,” Steitz said. “The question the whole time was, ‘How did we produce such a paddler from Ski Town USA?’”
John Trujillo could only watch as Rich Weiss descended the 30-foot Big Brother waterfall.
It immediately looked wrong. Weiss was going too slow, and he was off his line, drifting to the right toward danger.
“He approached the lip of Big Brother with little speed and appeared to stall,” Trujillo wrote. “I waited for the powerful last stroke, but he seemed to just fall off the drop.”
He plunged to the base of the falls and was immediately swallowed up by the hydraulic and pulled back into the cave.
Mist boiled up, clouding Trujillo’s view. He could see the boat spinning, but little else.
When Trujillo had faced a similar circumstance on a previous run, he’d been ejected from the cave after 30 seconds. Weiss’s boat remained, however, and the seconds added up.
Two minutes in, Trujillo established that Weiss was definitely out of his boat. Trujillo scrambled to shore, then crawled across the slick rocks and as close to the falls as he dared.
Weiss’s boat eventually shot free, floating down the river, but there was no sign of Weiss. Trujillo pulled out a rope and tossed it through the mist and into the cave, hoping Weiss would latch on. He threw it again and again, but finally gave up after 45 minutes.
He hiked out to a nearby road, hitchhiked to the nearest town and called for help.
“Next came the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he wrote. “From the pay phone I walked across the street to the take-out where Rosi was waiting for us. With my stomach in my throat, and on the verge of tears, I told her that the love of her life, her soul mate, and the father of her unborn child, was dead.”
They found Weiss’s body that night, draped over a log down river from the Big Brother rapids, drowned.
He was 33 years old.
‘I want to go to the Olympics’
Richie Weiss returned to Steamboat Springs for the final time in the days following his death, and hundreds came with him, friends and kayakers from around the world.
They knew what had happened, how it had happened, but it didn’t make sense.
Little makes sense about an Olympic kayaker drowning.
“Richie could put a boat within an inch of where it belongs, do it fast and do it 10 times out of 10,” Shipley said, still struggling 19 years later.
“He wasn’t paddling every day any more, just doing it on weekends,” Shipley said. “Maybe when you’re not living it every day, your eyes can still see the lines you want to be on, but your body just can’t do it the same way.”
Weiss wasn’t ever the loudest competitor, but six days after his death, at a memorial service at Olympian Hall in downtown Steamboat, his friends near and far spoke for him.
“He was buried with the Olympic flag,” Steitz said, a nod, in part, to the grace Weiss showed after his 1992 bronze medal snub.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Steitz said. “The Olympic flag is sacred, and usually, no one can use it, but because it was Richie, the Olympics officials gave us a flag and looked the other way.”
They gathered to remember Weiss again four years later, this time right on the river, in a park at the eastern edge of downtown and along the slalom course.
The city of Steamboat Springs named the park in his honor, Dr. Rich Weiss Park.
His wife, Rosi, and the son he never met, named River, were there.
“He wouldn’t believe it,” Rosi said at the time, quoted in Steamboat Today.
“He wouldn’t want to be put on a pedestal,” she said. “It’s not his way at all.”
He was put on a pedestal, however, one right along the river.
Artist Tyler Richardella crafted a bronze sculpture of Weiss guiding a kayak through whitewater, with big splashes lashing the side of the boat, one paddle blade buried in the surf, the other high in the air.
Weiss looks out from under his helmet, his gaze locked forward, directly at the slalom course.
That’s where it started, at least for Steitz.
He remembers the first day.
He spent the afternoon paddling through slalom gates but was interrupted by a teenager with a dream.
“He showed up literally riding a bicycle,” Steitz said. “He had a shopping cart tied behind the bike, and there was a kayak strapped into the cart.”
Weiss was looking for a coach and had been told where he might find one.
That was before the World Championships and before Rosi, before the nights paddling in the pool and before the days sledgehammering away the ice.
It was the start of something special.
“He said, ‘My name’s Richie and I want to go to the Olympics.’”
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