Photos courtesy of US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics
Venus and Serena Williams. Peyton and Eli Manning. Cheryl and Reggie Miller. The list of famous athlete siblings is short but oh-so-sweet, and sailing is not without its additions. French sailors Bruno and Loick Peyron come to mind, as do Californian solo-circumnavigators Zac and Abby Sutherland. Now, after years of vying for berths, siblings Zach and Paige Railey add their names to the ranks as they prepare to represent the United States at the 2012 Olympic regatta in Weymouth, England.
The Raileys, of Clearwater, Florida, are both members of the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics, and both one-time holders of a number-one ranking in their respective classes. Zach, 27, sails Finns, while Paige (whatever you do, don’t call her “Zach’s Little Sister”), 24, sails Laser Radials. Zach is superstitious (he has pre-regatta routines for attire, music and shaving) while Paige prefers to meditate before races. Zach has competed in the Olympics, earning silver at the 2008 games in Beijing, China. Paige has not. But that last about to change.
Unlike many athletic siblings, the Raileys didn’t inherit their interest or their aptitude from their parents. Rather, the family dentist introduced them to the sport. After Zach completed the learn-to-sail program at a camp in Clearwater at age 8, he joined the club’s racing team and has been hooked ever since.
In 1996, one year after competing in the Optimist South American Championship at age 11 (an event he considers one of his “greatest sporting achievements”), Zach got his first taste of Olympic spirit. “I was watching the Olympic Games when Michael Johnson ran the 200 meter in his gold shoes. I can remember thinking, ‘Wow, that would be really amazing if I could go to the Olympics.’”
Throughout high school, Zach pursued this goal, racing predominantly in Lasers; he transitioned to the Finn class just before graduating, after being introduced by his friend Chris Cook. “At 6 feet 3 inches and 190 pounds, I was too big for a Laser, too big for a 420 or an FJ, and we were trying to decide what boat I was going to sail,” says Zach. “Chris gave me the opportunity to sail [a Finn] with him in Ft. Lauderdale. It was 15 to 20 knots with big waves and he started showing me the free pumping technique downwind. He was standing up in the boat and surfing down the waves. That was it. I was hooked.” Zach attended the University of Miami so he could continue training at the city’s US Sailing Center and work toward his Olympic goal.
Flash forward to the 2008 Olympic games, and his story comes full-circle. “One of the events I made sure not to miss was the 200 meter final. Usain Bolt ran it while wearing his gold shoes, and he broke Michael Johnson’s record,” Zach says. “So there I was, 12 years later, a 24-year-old in the Olympic Stadium. I had just won an Olympic medal, and I watched a new world record of the event that made me want to go to the Olympics. Everyone has an Olympic moment. That was mine.”
Like her brother, Paige learned to sail at summer camp. By age 8, she’d fallen in love with sailing through Zach, who would often take Paige and her twin sister Brooke sailing in his Opti. At first, sailing didn’t come easily for Paige. “I was terrible. We were practicing rounding a mark during our first sailing drill, and as I tried to tack, the boom nailed me in the head. [Our instructor] Scott Norman yelled, ‘You’re supposed to duck!’” laughs Paige.
While Zach’s sailing success developed gradually in comparison, Paige’s high school years were a whirlwind of training, regattas, medals and, somewhere in between, homework. At 15, she was named US Sailing’s 2002 Female Athlete of the Year, an honor she received again in 2004. She took home the bronze at the ISAF Youth Sailing World Championships in 2002 and the gold in 2003 and 2005, making her the only female to win more than one single-handed dinghy title at the event. She was the first female to win the U.S. High School National Championship in 2003 and ranked number one on the ISAF World Sailing Rankings when she graduated from high school in 2005.
In 2006, at 19, Paige earned both the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year award (becoming the first North American female and youngest recipient to win) and US Sailing’s Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year (also the youngest recipient). But, like any prodigy, Paige felt a constant pressure to succeed. “I made so many sacrifices. I gave up my high school life. I didn’t go to college. I traveled around the world all the time and didn’t have a home life. Everything was based on [the Olympic Trials] for me. Honestly, during that time I fell out of love with sailing,” Paige says.
At the 2008 Olympic Trials, Paige faced off against fellow U.S. sailor Anna Tunnicliffe for a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. In a down-to-the-wire battle, Paige flipped her boat and lost to Tunnicliffe, who went on to win the gold in Beijing.
“I will never forget my dad saying, ‘Paige, this loss is either going to ruin your sailing or it is going to be the best thing that ever happened to it,’” Paige recollects. “I took that to heart. I look back now and think losing those trials was the best thing for me because it made me reevaluate the way I was approaching it. I’ve gone back to the basics and sail just because I love it.”
In order to return to “the basics,” Paige went back to college (she graduated in 2010 with a business management degree from the University of South Florida) and began to explore Buddhism. “I started meditating,” Paige says. “You learn to control your mind, and relax, so you can just go for it.” She goes on to say, “Now, I don’t let one bad race ruin my whole event.”
Zach also understands the merit in having fun with the sport. “I like match racing and sailing backwards downwind—fun stuff like that helps you,” he says.
The Railey’s stress-free outlook seems to be working. Over the past few years Paige and Zach have accumulated an impressive series of top-five finishes in major regattas throughout the United States and Europe. They've also got the support of several generous sponsors, including Sunsail, which has sponsored Zach since 2008 and Paige since 2011. Most recently, Sunsail gifted them with $24,000 for their campaign. In return, the siblings have certainly made their sponsor proud.
At the ISAF Sailing World Cup series, Paige finished third for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons. She won US Sailing’s Golden Torch Trophy for placing first at the Rolex Miami OCR in both 2010 and 2011. At the Weymouth and Portland International Regatta (a London 2012 Olympic Test Event), she won the bronze. She also received the bronze at the 2011 Pan American Games in October and the 2011 Perth ISAF World Championship regatta in December. It was the latter finish that secured a berth on the 2012 Olympic squad.
Zach continued his success in the Finn class by winning the Finn National Championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011; winning a silver medal at the 2009 Finn Gold Cup; and winning three medals at ISAF Sailing World Cup events. In 2011, he placed second at French Olympic Sailing Week, third at Kiel Week in Germany, fifth at the Princess Sophia Trophy Regatta and ninth at the ISAF championships.
He attributes much of this recent success to physical fitness, saying “After the Miami OCR event in January  I moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and spent six days per week working out at least two times a day. We focused on my nutrition, mental fitness, rehab and hydration testing. I was able to make some huge gains.”
Despite their years of work and sacrifice, both Raileys say making the 2012 Olympic squad makes it worth it. “This has been a long time coming,” Paige says. “Finally to get to go represent my country; I’m extremely excited. Especially having my brother by my side.”
Zach adds, “This is a huge moment for our family.”
Their ambition, however, does not stop at just going to the Games. Paige’s ultimate goal is to win gold and continue the U.S. stranglehold on Laser Radial, while Zach has his sights set on becoming the first American to claim Olympic gold in Finn.
“We always push each other to do well. Our goal is for the two of us to win gold medals at the Olympics. We’re going to push each other hard, both on the water and off the water and work together, just like we always have,” says Zach. “That’s how we got here and we’re not going to change things now.”