Zach Railey has seen a few things, going this far with the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. For one, he saw every journalist's slamdunk brother-sister story of the year go up in smoke when world female Sailor of the Year Paige Railey did not make the team. For another, he went from high-place finishes in lead-up regattas to tanking the Finn class worlds. But there's a reason why this 23-year-old first-generation sailor can wrap it all up in a kit bag and smile.
It's not about finishing 28th in the worlds when, as he said, "A week before I had finished fifth against the same competitors, in the same venue, with the same race committee." But it's related. Railey says, "A lot of people, after a bad regatta, just pack up and leave. I never do that. I go to the ceremony and look at someone on the podium holding the award that I wanted to win. I let that sink in. Then I go home and train harder."
Railey is home in the US (briefly) after a long stint in the antipodean summer. I caught up with him as he passed through California on his way to the Finn Midwinter Championship starting Friday at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then it's off to Europe, but really, it's the road to Qingdao. His bottom line on the worlds, where Briton Ben Ainslie won an unprecedented fifth Finn Gold Cup: "There were times when Ben and I were together on the first upwind, and we saw that we couldn't win on that side, and Ben took his losses early. It sounds simple, but I guarantee you it's hard to resist hanging in for the magic shift that's going to change everything. Ben had the discipline and experience to know when to take a risk and when not to. That's my takeaway."
At six feet, four inches and 215 pounds, Railey grew through the Laser in a hurry, and now he is too big for most dinghies. But he's just right for the muscleman Finn. He frames things this way: "I'm not a sailor. I'm an athlete in the sport of sailing. I wish more people in America understood sailing that way."
Regarding the much-maligned Olympic sailing venue of Qingdao (where the local government, inspired by its role of regatta host, is investing huge sums to develop junior sailing programs), Railey says, "I've been there twice, and Qingdao is not as bad as they say. It's going to be light air. There's going to be current. We're going to spend a lot of time in China between now and August putting together a game plan. US Sailing has hired the people who did weather services for the last Volvo Race. They have been to China with us on both of our trips, and they've researched the underwater topography, dispersed floating gps modules at the change of tide—if I had to pick two countries that are the most prepared in that area, I'd pick the US and the UK.
"But, conditions are bad enough in Qingdao that it's going to be anybody's game. The top 20 in the world can go and any of them can be on the podium. Everybody is going to have at least one bad race, so it's critical to be mentally tough."
"The Chinese are going to put on a fantastic show. They're not holding back anything. This could be the best Olympics ever."
For Zach Railey, August in Qingdao is not about a fantastic show. It's about winning "a medal" for the US in the Finn dinghy. Gold is not a stated goal in 2008, though of course the dream is there of pulling it out somehow. Gold in 2012, that's on the list. Here is where realism comes in, and Railey hauls along this tiny cauldron of forces in a corner of his kit bag along with his tools for processing the meaning of, as he said, "An absolutely terrible regatta at the worlds. Sometimes you're not going to reach your goals. That's OK, but for it to be OK you have to be able to look back and know that you did everything possible."
And when that happens, and he has to stand there in the crowd looking at someone else on the podium, that's value, he says: "People who skip the ceremony when they lose, people who miss out on absorbing the full reality of it, are making a huge mistake."
Railey refers to his Olympic campaign as a full-time job, and it's been his full time job since graduating from the University of Miami in 2006. Still short on his $147,000 budget for 2008, Railey exudes confidence. His biggest expense, he says, is having a devoted coach who goes with him everywhere, "but that is the single most important thing for me." He has had the same coach since age nine.
And let's be honest here. You can't sit down with big, wholesome Zach Railey (showing no jet lag after his flight from New Zealand) without being aware of the elephant in the middle of the room.
It would have been a storyteller's dream if Paige Railey had made the Olympic Sailing Team along with her brother. A year before the US Trials, it was Paige who looked like the better bet. Actually, that's an understatement. For a while there, you could have imagined that the Trials would merely be a coronation. There was Paige winning world championships as a teenager, being named world female sailor of the year—
Then Anna Tunnicliffe met her own goals, hit pace, and won the Trials to represent the US in the Laser Radial. No fluke. She won.
Then the gossip. (You know who you are.)
Then Miami OCR in January. The comeback.
And now that Paige has come back and won a big regatta and dispelled the gossipy rumors that she had been somehow broken by not making the team, it's a bit easier to speak about these matters. In fact, it's important to speak about these matters. So please, Zach Railey, take up the story:
"It was hard on both of us when Paige lost the Trials," says Zach. "Paige and I feel like we're a team. But look at the record. Paige won pre-Olympic racing at Qingdao in 2006. Anna won in 2007. At the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta last January, the whole world of women's Laser Radial sailors showed up, but it was the Paige and Anna show, and Paige pulled out the win this time. Anna could win the next one. Paige could win the next one. What was especially hard was, the Trials racing was not about a spot on the team, it was about a spot on the podium. It was a race for a medal. Paige wanted that . . .
"But let me tell you, she is a tough young lady. A lot of my strength in sailing I learned from my kid sister."