Sailing team tacks to the top

Most have heard about the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the football team and probably a little bit about the men’s soccer team, but none of these teams were ranked as high as the women’s sailing team last year.

“Among Olympic sports, and sports in general, sailing is not well publicized,” USF sailing coach and 1988 Olympic gold medalist Allison Jolly said. “Sailing was long considered an elitist sport, due to the cost of boats and due to events like America’s Cup. But with more Fiberglas construction, costs are down and the sport is appealing more to the masses, but the stereotype still exists.”

The women’s sailing team, which has its home at the USF St. Petersburg campus, finished its season ranked sixth in the nation – a feat that may be hard to repeat as more than half the team’s starters will be graduating this spring. There are more than 200 schools in the United States with sailing teams.

One of the seniors, Jee Lee, has shown the sailing community what hard work can produce in a short amount of time. Lee didn’t start sailing when she was 9 or 10 years old, as most collegiate sailors do, but began sailing her first year at USF.

“I was a freshman here, and I was recruited by someone who was on the team because I was the right size,” Lee said.

Lee has become one of the biggest team players throughout her sailing career at USF, filling in for other team members whenever necessary.

“I really strongly believe in being a team player, and I fill in whenever I can because I feel like it’s my job,” Lee said.

Lee’s coach attributes her successes to her dedication.

“Her desire to excel, not just win, but to do the best she possibly can at all times.” Jolly said.

At last season’s Fall 2005 Atlantic Coast Championships, both the co-ed team and the women’s team had strong showings. Lee and senior partner Kristen Herman were able to squeak into the top 10, placing ninth in the “A” division.

Seniors Abby Ethington and Ashley Wierzbiki finished 6th in the event. Lee and company competed against the top 18 teams from the New England, Middle Atlantic and South Atlantic districts.

Both the women’s and coed team finished sixth at the championships.

The team was also represented at the College National Championships in Hawaii by freshman Paige Railey. Railey finished second at the Singlehanded National Championships. She had some trouble on the last day of the event, and Yale senior Molly Carapiet took first place in the field of 16 top collegiate sailors. Railey is the No. 1-ranked singlehanded sailor in the world.

“She’s only 18 and number one,” Lee said. “She is a strong Olympic hopeful.”Railey has taken the spring semester off to train for the 2008 Olympics and looks to win a gold medal, just as Jolly did in 1988.

Railey’s strong performance at nationals and the doublehanded team’s performance at the Atlantic Coast Championships is what led to the women’s team’s No. 6 national ranking. A panel of coaches from Georgetown University, Tufts University and the University of Southern California determines the rankings; but the future of sailing at USF may be at a crossroads with many members and starters of the team leaving.

“About 75 percent of our starters are seniors, so this year will be a peak year for us, with an uphill climb for the next couple of years.” Jolly said. “The key to becoming a successful sailing program is recruiting. Jee is an exception, excelling in the sport in such a short time.”