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Southeast US Makes Majority of Olympic Sailors

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Photography provided by US Sailing
Photography provided by US Sailing

Annapolis and Newport sailors can argue until they’re blue in the face over which city rightfully holds the title of “sailing capital of the world,” but there’s no denying that Southeastern sailors have an advantage. If you need proof, just look to the roster for the 2012 U.S. Sailing Olympic and Paralympic teams. More than half of the sailors—12 out of the 22—representing the U.S. in Weymouth, England, this summer during the 2012 Olympic Games hail from the Southeast.

More specifically, 11 of those Southeastern sailors are from Florida. Year-round boating, a plethora of youth sailing clubs and a water-centric lifestyle are just a few reasons Southeastern sailors say the Sunshine State is prime breeding ground for Olympians.

“For me, it’s a huge advantage to be from the Southeast because we can sail year round, which is something people from the Northeast U.S. and other countries can’t do,” says women’s 470 teammate Sarah Lihan. “It’s part of the reason I got into Olympic sailing.” Hailing from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Lihan is proud to be the first sailor who’s a product of the training program at Lauderdale Yacht Club to make it to the Olympics.

Sailors from around the world relocate to Florida for training, such as 2008 Olympic Laser Radial Gold Medalist Anna Tunnicliffe, who became a mentor to the burgeoning Lihan. “I was fortunate that Anna moved here just after college and needed someone to sail with,” Lihan says. “I credit her and her husband Brad Funke with a lot of my early successes.” In 2012, Tunnicliffe will make her second run in the Olympics, this time in Women’s Match Racing with teammates Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi.

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Year-round sailing is not synonymous with constant blue skies and balmy breezes, nor should Southeastern sailors be pinned as fair weather sailors. Rather, it’s the variety of weather available that makes this an attractive place for the sailing set.

“Really, you can get any conditions you want; light air and flat water in the bay or big seas in the Atlantic,” says first-time Olympian and 49er sailor Trevor Moore, from Naples, Florida. “You can pick and choose living in Florida, so it’s a pretty special spot.”

“Fort Lauderdale, when the cold fronts come through, is unparalleled,” says Lihan, who claims her hometown as her favorite place to sail. “You can sail in the ocean and have these big waves—anyone who hasn’t been there can’t understand how great the wind and waves are.”

Varying weather conditions, and the ability to train in them year round thanks to a moderate climate, surely gives Southeastern sailors an edge. But it’s the water-friendly lifestyle that gets so many kids in the region out sailing in the first place.

“Southeast sailors are water babies,” says first-time Olympian in the Laser Radial class Paige Railey, based in Clearwater, Florida. “We honestly love being on the water, and since we’re surrounded by it, we’re immersed in it all the time. When Floridians are away from water for too long they’re itching to get back. When we sail, we’re out on the water, out in the sun, doing a sport we love and able to be competitive at the same time.”

Her brother, returning Finn class Olympic sailor Zach Railey, agrees, saying the water-based community buoys his love for sailing. “It’s a water-based community here,” he says. “If I have a day off, I go fishing or diving or spend the day at the beach or go out on the boat. We grow up in that environment; it gives us a bit of an edge on the racecourse. We also learn to have the ultimate respect for the ocean because it’s far, far more powerful than we are.”

Southeastern sailors might have the upper hand when it comes to days spent on the water in a variety of conditions, but Mother Nature can still pull a punch with what the conditions will be during the Olympics. The China games four years ago proved just that. Boats were built specifically with the expectation of light wind, but the winds wound up being much heavier than anticipated. The rule of thumb preparing for Weymouth seems to be: expect the unexpected. Sailors report seeing days of light breeze followed by a week of rain and 20-knot winds daily.

“In Weymouth, we think the chance is for good wind, but we’ve also had periods of light air and of very, very heavy air,” says U.S. Sailing Director Dean Brenner. “We’re literally going to have to be ready for everything.”

In order to do so, the team has spent an enormous amount of time training in Weymouth; a full-time base has been in place since fall 2008. In many ways, basing the games in the U.K. is an easier adjustment for the U.S. sailors than China—culturally and linguistically, of course, but mainly in proximity. Being so much closer and having a fully stocked base means a team member can decide he wants to get some training in and be sailing in Weymouth days later.

If they can’t control the weather, than the team can be prepared for whatever might come their way. According Kenneth Andreasen, high-performance director and head coach, this means being overall tremendous athletes. “Their land training has evolved over the past four years to a whole new level,” Andreasen says. “A critical part of the team’s strategy: be in the best shape, work on your athleticism, work on your endurance, because you’re going need it those kind of conditions. The best athletes usually come up on top, it’s the way it is in all sports, and sailing isn’t excused from that. We think of ourselves as not really running a national sailing team but running a professional sports team.”

Zach Railey knows all about getting his body in top physical shape, which can vary depending on the venue in which he’s competing. He dropped down to 185 pounds for China in order to perform in the expected light air; now he’s up to 225 pounds for England. He concedes that he’s spent a lot of time in the gym over the past four years.

This year, Railey hopes to move up the podium in Finns from silver to gold, and he knows preparation isn’t all about physical condition and practice alone. “I was always a huge believer in visualization, taught that by a coach when I was young and have continued that this time around,” he says.

Trevor Moore notes that in a high-stakes event like the Olympics, much can be determined by mental stability. A typical sailing event might have 50 boats; the Olympics will only have 20. As the fleet numbers go down, the pressure goes up. Moore sees 10 boats as being contenders in the 49er class, but says, “Our thought is that four boats will take themselves out mentally and there will be six boats remaining, fighting for the medal.”

And this is what they are going for—a medal, a place on the podium. “Everything they’ve been working on, all the training they’ve done, culminates this summer in Weymouth, where a lot of these Olympic and Paralympic sailors are going to make their dreams come true. They’re going to sail for the gold,” says Andreasen.

While the Southeastern sailors express pride in representing their hometowns, their state and their region in the Olympics, first and foremost, they echo humility in representing their country and being a part of something much bigger than themselves. “It’s an honor,” says Paige Railey. “You’re representing your country and the people within your country, and it means a lot and holds a lot of value.”

“Representing the U.S. in the Olympics is a dream come true,” says Trevor Moore. “The Olympics are not necessarily about any individual. It’s about a nationality. It’s the absence of politics and war and pure competition.”

No matter where these sailors hail from, come late July, they will all be brandishing the USA logo and be teeming with pride for their country—whether the half of the team who hails from the Southeast does indeed have an advantage because of their place of origin will be decided on that ever-important racecourse.

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