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Six siblings head to the races for Canton Canoe Weekend


CANTON — Six siblings with the same passion take up their paddles and follow in their father’s wake at races nearly every weekend. The Schlimmer family, six brothers and sisters from Cortland, have been racing together for almost a decade.

Five of the six will race today during the 52nd annual Canton Canoe Weekend, a series of races hosted by the St. Lawrence Valley Paddlers that draw dozens of enthusiasts, both pros and amateurs. The event started Friday with a casual seven-mile tour down the Grasse River. The races began in earnest Saturday, but the main events will be held today, when racers pair up to compete against other teams for the top prize.

“This is one of the better small races. We’ve been coming pretty much every year since we started,” said Francis M. Schlimmer, 25.

Francis said he and his siblings decided to take up racing in 2004, inspired by their father, Joseph F. Schlimmer, an avid canoer.

“He would always be telling us stories about racing. He is basically our hero,” Francis said.

The sextet travels together across the Northeast, journeying to a new race nearly every weekend from April through November.

Two of the Schlimmers, Benedict R. and Michael J., already race in the pro classes. A third, Joseph G., 27, is well on his way to becoming a pro. Sisters Mary J., 22, and Theresa, 20, are among the best in the small world of amateur women’s racing.

While their father no longer races, Mary said, he is proud of his offspring’s exploits.

Only Francis raced Saturday, as one of his brothers was at another event in Philadelphia and the others were held up by car troubles. But five of the six siblings will take to the water for today’s race.

The Schlimmers each have put in hundreds of hours of training to become the Von Trapps of competitive canoe racing, and many other racers put in just as much time. They don’t do it for the money, and fame is negligible in this small sport. The top race of the year, the 120-mile AuSable River Marathon, pays $5,000 to its first-place finisher, and even the best racers cannot win enough to make a living.

“If you’re finishing in the top five, you might be able to pay for your paddles; that’s about it,” Francis said.

The thrill of the race, satisfaction of competition and the closeness of the community keep the Schlimmers coming back.

“It becomes kind of a lifestyle after a while,” Mary said.

After Saturday’s races, canoers compared equipment and swapped stories about races of years past. Many of these racers will be seeing one another every weekend for the next few months, and the first few weeks of the season have the atmosphere of a family reunion.

This familiarity brings an extra level of satisfaction to winning a race against a good friend, Mary said.

“If you train harder, you hope to be able to beat the next person,” she said.

Not everyone who races at Canton Canoe Weekend has put in months of training or spent thousands of dollars on equipment. Saturday began with a recreational race targeted at locals, and teams will compete in a casual relay at 1:30 p.m. today.

Those who want to become more competitive should continue breaking into the sport, Francis said.

“Anybody can get into it, and really do well and improve,” he said.

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