Far off from the fields of Gretna, out west across the Nebraska plains, one Gretna graduate has found national success on the white water of river rapids.
Julie Sutton, a 1992 Gretna High School graduate, and her Red Lady Raft Racing team took first place and the national title at the U.S. National Whitewater Raft Racing Competition in Canon City, Colo., on June 21 and 22.
“We were very excited; we’d worked really hard to get to that point,” Sutton said.
For Sutton, the love of rafting began as she vacationed in Wyoming. This interest didn’t become a career until 1999 when she met a friend at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This friend has worked on the rivers, and provided a connection for Sutton to make it a job instead of a hobby.
She said it was seven years later that she was introduced to raft racing.
“It was just locally then,” she said.
These early races would take places between friends and were more casual than competitive, Sutton said. Then in 2011, Sutton and a friend, Cristin Zimmer, formed Red Lady. She said the name came from Mt. Emmons in Crested Butte, Colo. A few of the members of the team lived in the area, and recommend Red Lady as it is the nickname for the mountain.
“At first we were like ‘What is Red Lady?’” she said, “It sounded cool.”
Members throughout the team had competed on a national level for about three years, she said, but she credited another addition to the team for adding the extra push to victory as this year Todd Toledo, a former men’s U.S. rafting team member, as their coach.
“In the past, we’ve known how to train, but we didn’t know the intensity,” she said.
She said Toledo provided this intensity while also teaching useful techniques and tips for Red Lady to reach the next level.
She said the competition was split between four disciplines: a time trial of a quarter mile; a 12-mile downriver paddle run down class III, IV and V rapids; slalom run through placed river gates; and a head-to-head race.
“We won all of them this year, which was really cool,” she said.
While the victory itself was an overwhelming excitement, Sutton said the team was thrilled as it also managed to defeat the 10 time reigning women’s champions, Elements Raft team of Vail, Colo.
“They’ve honed their skills to such a point they dominate,” she said.
Beating out such a team has shown the commitment and hard work Red Lady has put into its rafting, she said.
As for herself, Sutton said she is proud to say coming from Gretna and Nebraska has driven her to be a hard working and determined team captain.
“Coming from a small town, it kind of gives you a good work ethic,” she said. “Nebraska has a lot of hard working people.”
Additionally, she said the Nebraska demeanor has helped her bring the team together to work as a single unit.
Taking this work ethic and the national victory, Red Lady now qualifies for the World Competition taking place in New Zealand this November.
“Competing internationally is beyond what we ever imagined,” Sutton said.
The four day competition will host teams from all over the world, as rafting has become very popular in Europe, Asia and South America.
As the team has to raise its own funds for international travel, Sutton said people can go online to gofundme.com/red-lady-raft-racing to donate to the team.
Sutton said she and Red Lady are proud and ready to represent the United States on the world rafting stage.
To follow the team as they train and compete, Red Lady Raft Racing, Colorado can be found on Facebook or follow @RLRaftracers on Twitter.