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Countdown to Beijing: Thomas Barrows, USVI

Sailing has already played a big role in Thomas Barrows’ life at only age 20. And, if this St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands’ sailor’s dreams come true, sailing will continue to be an integral part of his life both as he launches future Olympic campaigns and even afterwards, as his desire to ‘give back’ to the sport is strong.

Life on the water, Barrows explains, started when his parents first took him cruising. “That sparked my interest in sailing. Then, when I was eight years old, they signed me up for lessons at the St. Thomas Yacht Club (STYC). I remember my first time in an Optimist. Nate (Rosenberg) and I double-handed.” What made Barrows stick with sailing was a strong element of enjoyment.

“I liked being on the water, especially with my friends Cy (Thompson) and Taylor (Canfield). We’d sail over to Christmas Cove and race back to see who could reach the beach first,” he explains. Barrows had no idea where sailing would lead him; he only knew that he wanted to continue.

“The Optimist isn’t an Olympic boat, so I wasn’t really thinking about the Olympics back then. But, when Anthony Kotoun (St. Thomas sailor and 2008 Olympic aspirant in the 49er) coached us, he really opened up our eyes and showed us where the sport could go in terms of both college sailing and the Olympics. Making the transition out of Optis to Lasers helped too.”

Barrows gained valuable sailing experience both in the Caribbean, U.S. and Canada at an early age. He spent grade school and his first high school summers in the Pleon Yacht Club’s summer program, where his parents held dual membership in the Marblehead, Massachusetts club along with STYC. From there, he competed in a variety of New England regattas as well as CORK in Canada.

“I had a chance to sail in different conditions, visit different places and compete on 70-boat start lines, first in Optimists and then Lasers. You just can’t get starting lines that big in the Caribbean,” he says. “I also had some really good coaches at Pleon, including Andrew Wills from New Zealand who was a member of the New Zealand Olympic Laser team and the national youth coach.”

At home in St. Thomas, Barrows and his friends also used sailing without a regular coach to their advantage.

“We’d go out and race against each other,” he says. “The beneficial side to this is that I think a lot of people go out and just do what the coach tells them without knowing why. When you teach yourself, and learn through trial and error, it can be very valuable. Also, you’re a little more motivated when you push yourself rather than have a coach push you.”

High school team racing aboard 420s also added to Barrow’s skill set. “It’s different than open course Laser sailing. You focus on boat handling, positioning, and tactics rather than just boat speed.”

Yale University sailing coach, Zack Leonard, himself an Olympic aspirant in the Tornado class, taught sailing at STYC in 2000 and met Barrows then. This connection, plus Barrows’ top grades and sailing skills, paid off in an acceptance to this Ivy League university where Barrows is now in his sophomore year. His weekdays are spent studying political science and sociology. and weekends are spent traveling the collegiate regatta circuit in New England and occasionally throughout the nation. For example, Barrows soundly won the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association’s Men’s Single-handed Championship, sailed out of Seattle, Washington, the first weekend in November.

This summer, Barrows made his first foray into Olympic competition by sailing in the ISAF Worlds held in Cascais, Portugal. He didn’t gain one of the initial slots, but he did pick up a lot of insight.

“The Laser class is extremely deep. People from countries you wouldn’t think would do well are really good sailors,” he says.

One of Barrow’s challenges then was a light weight, something he needed for the double-handed college circuit aboard 420s and FJ’s in his first year.

His sights are now set on bulking up, gaining time in the boat, and winning an Olympic slot for Beijing at the Laser World Championships set for the end of this month in Australia. If he makes it, great. If not, he’ll train for the 2012 Olympics. Either way, Barrows’ goal is not simply to sail, but to medal.

“For me,” he says, ”sailing in the Olympics means reaching the highest level in the sport, competing against the best in the world while at the same time representing my country.”

In the future, he adds, “Whatever career I choose, I’d like to find a way to give back to the sport. Several Yale graduates have done so, like Dave Perry, who wrote the ‘Racing Rules of Sailing’, among other books.”

For younger sailors who may want to follow in Barrows footsteps, he advises, “Remember why you sail, because it’s fun and you enjoy it. Don’t focus too much on results. Instead, focus on improving as a sailor. Sailing is a sport where you can meet friends all over the world and travel to incredible places.”

THE LASER

The Laser Standard, also called the International Laser Class sailboat, is a one-design boat chosen as a Men’s Olympic Class boat since 1996. This one-person boat measures 13-feet 10-inches long, with a 4-foot 7-inch beam, 2 foot 7 inch draft and 7.06-square meter sail area.

The design was built by Bruce Kirby to emphasize simplicity and performance. The greatest champion of Laser Class so far is Brazilian, Robert Scheidt. He won the world championship eight times and prevailed in earning two gold and one silver Olympic medals.

HELPING PROSPECTIVE CARIBBEAN OLYMPIANS

Readers who want to donate to Thomas Barrow’s Olympic campaign can contact him via Email: thomas.barrows@yale.edu or contact the Virgin Islands Sailing Association, St. Thomas Yacht Club, Attn: VISA president Bill Canfield, 6224 Estate Nazareth, St. Thomas, USVI  00802, or 340-775-6320.

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