Going into the 2008 Olympics Zach Railey was a relative unknown. He was one of the newest sailors in the class and was not really expected to win a medal. However his consistency in the early days left him leading the regatta and he was suddenly the centre of attention. As the event closed out he held his cool despite being match raced out of the first attempt to get the medal race away by the eventual Gold medalist Ben Ainslie. Zach eventually took Silver a day later when it was re-sailed in strong winds and big seas. It was a day that changed his life, and the realisation of an ambition that started when he was 12.
Now, four years later he is the US Team Captain and a role model for a generation of young sailors. He started sailing at age eight, following a suggestion from his family dentist to try summer sailing classes. Sailing Optimists until he was almost 13 he switched to the Radial and then the Laser, but outgrew each boat in turn. Then Chris Cook (CAN) asked Zach to sail with him one day in a Finn and he has been hooked ever since.
Last time around the US Olympic trials was a single winner-takes-all regatta. Like many elements of the new US approach to Olympic sailing, the trials system has radically changed, and this time around major regattas were used as indicators. “I like the new format as it measures you against the international competition you will race against at the Olympics. It also allows you to continue on the Olympic circuit without having to come home and concentrate on a trials event in the middle of the season. Overall, I think this was a huge success and I think it should be the way forward for our qualifications for 2016 and beyond. There may have to be some different regattas used next time but the general idea is a huge success.”
While winning the Silver in China was a massive achievement by any standards, bettering that colour in Weymouth is an even bigger ask, yet Zach is never negative about his chances and always focusses on what he is able to control.
“It is a big ask to qualify for the Olympics let alone then medal or win. This is hard and you are competing against the best in the world. That being said I am confident in my abilities and confident in the training and planning that has gone into the last four years. These are the best Finn sailors in the world going head to head at their best and that is the exact situation I want to put myself into and see where I come out in the end. It is the ultimate test and I can't wait for it to begin.”
“I race every race from a clean slate. I do not worry about the end result until the regatta takes me there. My job is to go out and post the best results that I can in each race and see how the regatta unfolds. Every event is different and there is no way to predict what will happen so I worry about me and let the results speak for themselves. If I am beaten by someone because they were better than I was, I can accept that, but I cannot accept beating myself.”
“The athletes always get better and better and smarter and smarter. It is amazing the progress you see over just a four year period. You have to constantly keep making improvements or you get left behind. I think physically this four years has been a huge difference as I am now almost 40 pounds heavier than when I was in China. That has taken a lot of work and I am very proud of getting my body ready for the conditions in Weymouth.. I also think the addition of the free pumping rule to 10 knots has made the boat much more physically gruelling and has really pushed the class forward in terms of a true athletic test.”
Over the last four years Zach has matured as a Finn sailor and has achieved a resonable level of success on the circuit. A year after the Olympic medal he took another silver, this time at the Finn God Cup in Copenhagen, and very nearly won the world title. Over the last two years he has picked up several medals including a silver at Hyeres in 2011 and a silver at Palma earlier this year. He also took gold, albeit in a smaller fleet at Miami this year. Top 10 places at the last four world championships is evidence enough that he is a force to be reckoned with, as well as being a record that not many other Finn sailors in Weymouth can match.
“I like to challenge myself. For me that means sailing against the best and trying to beat the best. For sailing that means the Olympics, Volvo Ocean Race or the America's Cup. I fell in love with the Olympics in 1996 when Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games. I was 12 years old and remember watching Michael Johnson win the 200 meters on TV and thought one day I could be there. I'm living the dream right now.”
“You have to be very dedicated to do an Olympic campaign, so dedicated that most people see it as being selfish. I don't think of myself as selfish but as a person who has a dream and knows that there are people out there who will help me achieve my dream. I know that I have given up so much to get to this point but I am perfectly content with the decision to do so because I am doing exactly what I have always wanted to do with my life.”
“I know that most people will not understand why you would sacrifice so much but I have a great support system and they sometimes don't understand it themselves, but they will always stand by me no matter what sacrifices have to be made. One of my favourite quotes is: “Talent is common. Disciplined talent is rare”I believe that I am a very disciplined person.”
What about the sacrifices? “My personal life has taken the biggest toll. I have an amazing family who are incredibly supportive of what I do, and also what my sister Paige does, and we have both made it to the Olympics in 2012 because of our family support system. The number of relationships lost over the years because of being gone, doing so much training and travelling are too many to count but I would change nothing, it's all worth it, and those who have been there for the long haul are truly special to me.”
Did winning an Olympic medal in 2008 change his life? “It certainly brought a lot more attention to me after 2008. That took some time for me to adjust to afterwards. I think the greatest thing about it was the opportunities I was given to achieve some none sailing goals like the OliviaLives Charity (OliviaLives.com) which is a huge accomplishment for Paige, myself, our entire family and all of the supporters who help make it a success. “
“Also, becoming a role model for younger sailors to show them that they can do exactly what I have done. Expectations, of course, have gone up and you accept that as part of the territory.”
In 2008 Zach was famously sailed out of the first attempt at the medal race in very light winds by a ruthless Ben Ainslie. They were both way behind the fleet when it was finally abandoned. When it was re-sailed in strong winds, it was easier for Zach to sail his own race and secure the Silver. Did he learn anything that will help in 2012? “I think the biggest lesson from the experience is to always to be prepared for any situation.”
Getting the gear right is a crucial part of winning in the Finn as the rig can be tailored around particular body weights and sailing styles.“This is an area where I really learned a lot over the past four years. With my big weight change and the difference in my strength and techniques we changed my gear, but they are small changes like having a little bit stiffer mast in some areas. It is nothing that the other competitors have not done themselves.”
“Most of it had to do with my weight gain and getting the correct bend in the mast to support the weight and strength I had added and then matching the sail to that mast. My gear in 2008 was for when I weighed 185 pounds and was for a light air venue. Now I am much larger and Weymouth is a very different venue so we needed to add some more strength to my equipment and power in the rig.”
The last four years has also seen the introduction of free pumping on offwind legs in winds over 10 knots and this has changed the game a bit, favouring the tall, athletic sailors. Has there been a change in rig design or sail shape brought on by the free pumping rule? “I do not think there has been a change because of the pumping rule with equipment, but physically it's been a huge development of maintaining power while increasing your cardiovascular capacity. It's very hard to maintain both correctly and we have worked hard to get where I am at today.”
At a venue like Weymouth with many different conditions, how do you select the right gear? “Great question and I wish I knew 100% the answer. I think you need to develop your gear for what conditions are most likely to be present but not totally specialise them in case there are a few days that are different. So you go with an all around set-up. Weymouth could be anything – we have seen it all there – but compared to China in 2008 it is a much windier and colder venue.”
Does he have any rituals or superstitions when racing? “I do have a few that mostly go back a long way. I always wear a University of Miami hat, I listen to the same song before going on the water, which no one knows not even my family and lastly I will not shave during a regatta except for the night before the medal race. So I guess I am superstitious but they are fun.”
What's planned after the Olympics? “I am really interested in the Volvo Ocean Race and want to do some more offshore sailing after the Olympics. Of course, the America's Cup has always been a dream and we will see if an opportunity presents itself there in the future. My big three in sailing have always been Olympics, Volvo Ocean Race and the America's Cup. After 2012, we will see which one of those three I put my efforts toward but for now its all about the Olympics.”
And Finn sailing? “I love the Finn and I will always have one for sure and compete at events. As for doing another campaign in the Finn...”
When asked to pick three favourites for a medal? “This one is hard. I really think that there are about 10 guys who can make it happen and be on the podium. To narrow it down to three is what the Olympics will tell us. Ask me again on August 6th.”
And finally, what are you looking forward to the most over the next few weeks? “Walking into the Opening Ceremony with my sister Paige. We have been dreaming of that moment since we were little kids. It's going to be a very special moment for both of us.”
You can also follow Zach on his website at: www.zach2012.com or his Twitter feed: @zachsail.
Photos: Robert Deaves/Finn Class