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Paddling for gold

WHITE CITY — Pete Newport and his band of rafters slice their specially crafted oars through the Rogue River, hurtling their red, white and blue raft toward a series of gates hung from the Table Rock Road bridge above them.

Newport barks out a command and the raft deftly spins between the gates in a move the foursome hopes to repeat expertly enough next week in Japan to catapult them to the top of the whitewater rafting world.

The local foursome are part of a six-person, over-40 masters team that will represent the United States in the World Rafting Championships Oct. 6-9 on Japan's Yoshino River.

When the rafters return, they expect what hangs from their necks to set off the airport's metal detector.

"We're going to Japan expecting to win gold," says Newport, president of Sawyer's Paddles and Oars. "Our goal is to beat everybody and show that being a master is a show of power, not a weakness.

"But it is whitewater, so anything can happen," he says.

Joining Newport on the team are Matt Dopp of Medford, and Andy Baxter and Jon "Shaggy" McLaughlin, both of Ashland. They are rounded out by draftees John Catlett, a Grand Canyon guide from Arizona, and veteran rafter and instructor Julie Sutton from the rafting-rich state of Colorado.

They will face 11 other national champions on the Yoshino, which Newport says is similar to the Rogue.

"They just had a typhoon come through, so we'll have high water," Newport says.

The team flies out Thursday, convening in Japan to train and dine with Japan's national masters team before four days of formal training precludes the actual competitions, Newport says.

Teams compete in four events, beginning with a time-trial sprint that sets the seeding for the next day's head-to-head competitions until the top two teams square off in the finals.

The next event is the slalom, in which they paddle through gates like those not-so-legally hung off Bybee Bridge for Tuesday's training. The competition concludes with the downriver event, during which teams just bomb downriver as fast as they can, with the fastest team declared the winner.

Most of them competed as a four-man team in Saudi Arabia during last year's world championship, in which teams alternate from four- to six-man groupings every other year.

Along Dubai's man-made river and course, the U.S. Team took second in the downriver but tanked in the slalom, during which it hit five gates and missed two to garner costly penalties, Newport says.

Baxter says that experience, as well as how it set the standard for this year's training regimen, gives the U.S. team a new edge.

"We have a deeper team, we're stronger and we're technically a lot better," says Baxter, who paddled with Newport and Dopp in last year's championships and is a two-time member of past national championship teams.

"And we know who we're up against," Baxter says.

Newport says the team is about "20 percent faster" than it was last year, so gold is within its grasp.

Newport says it will cost about $20,000 for all six team members to travel to the competition, and their fundraising effort through gofundme.com to date has raised about $7,000.

The Masters Team will be joined in Japan by three other Colorado-based teams representing the United States. They are an Open team, a women's team and a women's under-23-years-old team.

Some of the races are scheduled to be shown live on Youtube. View them at www.youtube.com/watch?v="hJM_v9ogF"-wd.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Andy Baxter, front left, Pete Newport, front right, John McLoughlin, left rear, and Matt Dopp, right rear, members of the U.S. rafting team, practice Tuesday at TouVelle State Recreation Site. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]