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The Fine Points of Sailing and College Acceptance

What goes into each person’s decision on where to go to school? And, more important for the Caribbean’s high school athletes with collegiate aspirations, how much of a part do sports play in the college acceptance process?

The results from U.S. fall regattas sparked my curiosity. Here we had samplings of the best sailors on the college circuit right now, and it seemed that the best of those, all attending different schools, were all from one region.

In October, college sailing held what is arguably the biggest intersectional regatta of the fall semester: Navy Fall at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. The best teams from across the country bring their best sailors in four divisions—and Caribbean kids cleaned up in all except C division. That was because there wasn’t anyone from the islands sailing in C division.

The Men’s Laser Performance National Singlehanded Championships in Corpus Christi Texas this November also savored strongly of island skill. Of the top ten finishers at the end of the regatta, four were from Central America or the Caribbean, including the winner, Juan Maegli of Guatemala. Clearly these kids learned a little something sailing in the islands.

Now it’s January, the time when high school seniors are either filling out college applications due in early March or waiting anxiously to hear if they got in early to their top choices. The next batch of young recruits soon begins visiting schools, hoping to find the perfect fit.

Of course the shopping goes both ways. Colleges are also on the lookout for young talent on all fronts. Athletics and academics often go hand in hand. Schools want good sports teams to keep the extra-curriculars interesting, but they also need smart kids to keep their overall rankings up. There’s a balancing act that takes place, and understanding it is critical to understanding the way the college acceptance process works.

At most schools, coaches get what are known as “tips” to use with the admissions office on their recruits. A tip is basically an extra vote for the acceptance of an applicant to the university. Different schools and different sports get different numbers of tips, and the strength of a tip often depends on the popularity or importance of the sport to a specific college’s athletic program.

Mike Callahan has been the coach of the Georgetown University Sailing Team (GUST) since 1997, and every year he’s faced with the challenge of choosing the right recruits for the sailing program. But Callahan says the question goes much deeper than deciding who’s the best sailor. He gets four spots and, as he explains, “The tip that sailing gives you is not extreme. I pick kids that are smart and are a good profile for the school. They have to want to go there for the right reasons. Not for sailing or partying, but because that school will help them meet their goals.”

Something else Callahan considers is where else a recruit is looking, and what other schools are interested in that student. “I try to talk to other coaches about who everybody’s looking at. Not to poach, but to make sure that that kid is telling truth, and that they’re going to get into college.” Often, if a student isn’t going to get into their top choice college, the coach will let the second or third choice school know, so that they can save a place on their team for him or her.

Callahan said that there’s no harm in a student telling a coach that the school isn’t their top choice. It’s just important to be honest about where you’re looking, because coaches do talk.

So how do you choose? Well, that’s a personal decision. I spoke with athletes at four different colleges who got into their first-choice school. They all agreed that their athletic ability had at least something, if not everything to do with their acceptances. And they each had stellar things to say about their universities.

It all depends on the individual, and Mike Callahan, who has been watching kids make the decision for years, put it best when he said, “Sailing is something that will augment your undergrad experiences, but it’s not the reason you go to college. There’s a lot of time left to enjoy your experiences and your surroundings. Sailing won’t fill all the voids.”

As for the trend of Caribbean sailors on top, it’s true now, but it may just be a trend. Callahan remembers when he was in high school, a lot of the good kids were coming out of Southern Massachusetts and New England. Now kids from Southern California, Florida, the Caribbean and countries abroad are cleaning up.

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