Team Bober – the legends

At the 2016 ERC the unimaginable happened – “Bober” (SLO) rafting team returned to the competitive rafting scene!!! Not only did many of my wishes become realities because of this, but I also had the privilege to interview and find out more about this amazing team.

The crew of: Jani Plestenjak, Borut Holy, Matej Hočevar, Robert Malovrh and their reserve, Olympic kayaker Dejan Kralj, all responded for this interview.

It is 26 years since they started in competitive rafting and 16 years since they took a break, and in all that time no team has beaten their record of achieving the maximum of 1000 points in R6, which they did in 1997. They were the first to do so and they still hold that record today, and that they did that on the mighty Zambezi River leaves us speechless!!! It is something hardly any team could repeat. But I leave room for hope that someone will reach their record and of course that I will be there when it happens!

In the first five years of the Camel White Water Challenge – 1995, ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, with ’98 and ’99 being recognized as the first official IRF World Champs, – they dominated.

bober 8 Borut Holy – how did you manage that?

“Well, we had incredible luck; 6 people who loved the nature of the wild rivers and loved kayak sports came together accidentally. After more or less successful careers in various kayak disciplines, and while we were all finishing in active racing, we met each other at the rafting event on the Soča River. We joined the race and found out that rafting is challenging fun, what we like, and we can do this for a further few years. As we already knew how to train in kayaking we just followed this spirit. At the age we were we took our new challenge seriously, and we trained without exception. Successes came almost immediately. Friendships deepened and the training for all of us wasn’t difficult. Shortly after we started we invited established kayaking coach Rade Kovačević to work with us very seriously on this new area of raft racing. We carried out his exercises 100%. But on the other side, we are still convinced, from the sporting side, our main advantage is (was) not power but homogeneity of all our teams members. Also, maybe I should emphasize this first, all our rafting career we were surrounded with great rafting teams from all around the world. All these guys gave us extra joy to attend each year and prepare ourselves to be at the top level of our potential.

bober 5Our rafting career started in 1990, the same year we became national champions. We were national champions, without exception, every year until the end of our careers in 1999, so we booked 10 titles of national champion in all three disciplines sprint (h2H), slalom and downriver, we did not lose one national head to head race. (In those days H2H was called Sprint and the Sprint was a Time Trial without points – ed) Our first international success was in Italy in 1994. It was called the world championship, but honestly speaking it was lacking quite a few good teams who were competing at that time in rafting.”

You were so far ahead of your time. It would be great to be able to see how the “old” Bober team would compare to the Open teams of today. What do you think about the level of Masters teams now?

“Well, I can say I was quite surprised on strength of all masters teams. Maybe this is too quick a conclusion, but it seems that in the sport of rafting not only muscles but also tactics, experience, homogeneity, reaction as one and finally team spirit all play crucial roles, so teams can have top results even if their members are not as »fresh« as 30 years or less. In the Overall at the ERC we were ranked among the top six or five teams overall with quite an acceptable gap.”

Bober 14Jani Plestenjak – What motivated you to come back to rafting competitions? Was this due to the 2016 ERC being in your country, to make it even greater? Was that the reason or were you missing the sound of the start whistle? ;)

“Everything somehow came together. Robi called us and asked if we wanted to get back in the raft and everyone, without much thinking, decided to do it. There was also the desire, after the big break, to see how far we are behind the competition now and what happened after us. These past 16 years I was more involved with other sports: MTB cycling, windsurfing, cross-country skiing … But that beep at the start … I was missing it :) ”

Did this competition satisfy your desires?

“This competition definitely fulfilled the desires of the team and confirmed that we can still do something, and at our age, after such a long break. :)”

Robert Malovrh – The first race after 16 years and a gold in the Sprint, what a way to arrive back in to the rafting scene!!! What is it that has changed since you were actively competing? Is there something that you feel you need to catch up with?

Bober 16“We wanted it so much that we succeeded! J Well, you have to understand, we needed to show at least the shadow of our old team. The break was really long! Our first training took place on March 17, we only had two months to train!! We trained only on the Ljubljanica River which is totally flat water. We did not want to go to the Tacen River in case of injuries. I like use the term that each team must have “created the back of the boat”,  that is: compactness, strength, technique, the same vision, the same thinking, compatibility, connection;  and our “back” of the boat were not compact, stable and strong, so we were training on the Tacna first, starting with a large measure of caution. The slalom training totally stretched us and we were joking:, “what soft *** we are”. Sprint we did many times and time has shown that we still have the old team magic. J Of course we are very satisfied, but we often think “What would it be like to have at least a little more of the old strength?!” So, of course, we are thinking like competitors. :)

Bober 15What has changed since when we were last actively competing? Well, you see, when you compare who was successful in our time and now, in the last 10 years Brasil, Japan, New Zealand have been world champions and European teams have not featured as much in the top 5, whereas in our time, the top 5 teams were mostly from Europe. At that time the races were on large volume rivers with big, strong rapids, whereas it has mostly been on smaller volume rivers where it is much harder to flip or make a big mistake. In our day swimming and mistakes were far more common, you had to use a lot more caution and be tactically and technically far more prepared for the rapids. Boats used to be the same as for tourism. Twenty years ago we were already training in “V” boats. With them you could use the slope, and on the rivers with higher volumes of water we used spraydecks for all 6 people. If rafting would like to reach higher levels (like Olympics) it will be necessary to construct a new form of a boat that will allow inclines and with that make the sport even more attractive.

Rafting is partly an extreme sport so it would nice that the biggest championship is held on bigger, stronger waters. And I understand that this is dependent on getting big money. It’s hard to organize all the logistics in a “wild” place on a “wild” river. I would like to see as many rafters as possible to feel the charm of the Zambezi River and all that. You cannot compare an artificial channel with a real canyon and real river! We had luck that we were part of the adventure under sponsorship of Camel and so had the opportunity to experience rafting on the Zambezi, Reventazon, Orange River … but times do change!!!”

Bober 10Matej Hocevar – Will you continue to compete? This is something that I’m most interested :) What are your plans for the future?

“Yes! I decided to go back … it all started on New Year’s eve when I was with my family and so this is how the year 2016 began. Since then I have been keeping busy and training every day.  I first sat down in a canoe after 11 years and immediately signed up for the competition, and a week later I got a call from Robi and all started…

My future is in the canoe and even in the raft. My goal is to motivate other Bober’s to go to WRC in Al Ain this year and 2017 in Japan, and the main goal is to get back to Africa because we are The Kings of the Zambezi.”

That would be magnificence, to see you back in action on the Zambezi, because you definitey are The Kings of the Zambezi. And we look forward to seeing you at WRC in Al Ain and Japan!

Bober 17Borut Holy – What is your general impression after the return? What you missed the most during the whole of this break, if such a thing exists? And among some of the comments on the Internet on your return is that during your career you did not go to parties…. Will this change now in the Masters category? :)

“It is nice to be again with all participants. We met some old friends who became officials, we met some old friends who came to support sport as spectators. We had big fun even we take the race seriously, perhaps too seriously. During the break we live quite active lives, so I think we did not miss anything, anyway, joined the race was right decision. We spent a wonderful week of competition, and two months of preparation.

Comments on the Internet? At our career Internet barely existed…  joke! Honestly we are very shy, so we avoid parties… joke 2!! As I remember we have got nickname »Stonefaces«. Well, at the time, we just followed our goal, without any pressure, but during competition no one had no desire to party. We joined many parties after competition, especially at home in Slovenia. We were quite popular and special guests on many events. Now we are masters so we can’t dance as youth, we can’t drink as youth, we are tired all the time…, one member of Slovenia 1 open team after sprint advised us, go home soon to rest and prepare our old bodies for next day. Advice we didn’t take serious enough, so we had problems with head to head race and slalom. Next Master race we join, we are going to party after all the races…” – I like what I hear, because now your boys are not much different from you at the beginning. I just hope I will not have to wait until one of them came in the Masters category to dance with me. :)

bober 3People you want to thank?

“We are grateful to have got an opportunity to ride a rafting boat ten long years as a team “BOBER” surrounded with all excellent people from all over the world and especially at home. Our amazing experience, new friends and adventures that we have experienced, are unforgettable and we just wish that everybody who have ever entered the competition rafting experiencing the same. Of course, without the selfless support and understanding of the immediate family members the team would not functioned for a serious workout needed a lot of patience and sacrifice, just as it would not be able to do without all the sponsors who have helped us either financially or organisationally but also with moral support.  Thanks to Camel as organized competition at the spectacular rivers and that we were part of that adventure, because that is something you can not forgot… Our book is full of events, memories etc ….. there a lot of names to thank, but we have already thanked them personally! Special thanks are definitely go to bober 4the coach Rade Kovačević, who is probably the most deserving for the success of Bober racing Team. Training was always consisted from exercises, we had need to fulfill on limit of our possibilities, all the program we have fully implemented at the same time he was able to recognize fatigue in our bodies so for good work he gave us some free time. On ERC we have been supported also from Rafting Association of Slovenia and some local sponsors, and if our career in the Masters category continued it will be very much welcome to continued with support.”

What an honor and a pleasure to talk to you guys. There are more questions, but I’ll leave something for next time. For us it was a great honor to see you back, and to hang out with you again through the rafting that we love so much. Congratulations on this achievement at the ERC, and fantastic return on the scene! I think you will enjoy a trip to the WRC in Al Ain and Japan, to see with many old friends and re-crossed paddles with them again. Leave us to enjoy more of your paddling.