Jonathan Rudich, 17, never made it clear to his mother how much he was progressing in the sport of windsurfing.
"I was just driving him to competitions and making sure he was safe," Harriet Rudich said. "I didn't realize the importance of it all."
His mother's perspective changed when Jonathan, who has lived in Clearwater for 11 years, was accepted as a member of the U.S. sailing team after only four years of competing in the sport.
In January, Jonathan entered the International Sailing Federation World Cup in Miami and placed 15th out of 28 contestants in the windsurfing competition. Because he placed second among the six Americans competing, he was awarded one of the two windsurfing spots on the team.
That gives him a shot at competing for the single windsurfing spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"For my first event ever in this class, with this level of competition, I was extremely happy," Jonathan said.
The sailing team gave him a full wardrobe and urged him to begin raising the money he'll need for travel and housing expenses as he competes around the world in a series of regattas.
The windsurfing competitions are grueling courses, with speeds as high as 30 miles per hour, depending on conditions.
Jonathan will compete against not only Carson Cain of Houston, the other windsurfer on the U.S. sailing team, for the Olympic spot, but also against other unaffiliated windsurfers from around the country. According to Jonathan's coach, the races should be close.
To raise money, Jonathan set up a website in addition to applying for grants and seeking businesses in the Tampa Bay area to sponsor his campaign.
Jonathan began windsurfing the summer before eighth grade when he attended a camp at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. There he met his coach, Britt Viehmen, founder of North Beach Windsurfing.
"Honestly, in the beginning, I didn't think he was going to be much of a competitor," Viehmen said. "But when he started racing and moved up to the bigger sails, he was more committed, working a lot harder and paying attention more."
Jonathan is smaller and lighter than most other competitive windsurfers, which gives him an advantage in lighter wind conditions that are often found in Clearwater. In heavier winds, however, he lacks the leverage of larger surfers when moving the sail.
"I think he's got a good shot, though," Viehmen said. "In Rio the wind is very light and shifty and that's the conditions he's used to."
The Olympic class of windsurfing uses sails that are 9.5 square meters (102 square feet). The sail towers over Jonathan as he carries it toward the water and installs it on his board. Once in the water, Jonathan effortlessly swings the sail back and forth, changing directions and pumping it rapidly to increase wind flow.
"It's really relaxing," Jonathan said. "I'm not even thinking about the windsurfing unless I'm racing. Then I am super-focused."
After learning he would be competing for the Olympic team, Jonathan ramped up his training regimen. He goes to the gym almost every day, windsurfs for hours at a time whenever there are high-enough winds, and even began yoga to increase his flexibility and balance.
"I wouldn't say I had a natural gift for windsurfing, I was just really determined — like, I want to do this, I want to get better." Jonathan said. "I think that's the most important thing to have, that drive."
A senior at Palm Harbor University High School, Jonathan plans to attend the University of Florida in the fall to pursue a career in engineering. He still wants to windsurf competitively as long as possible and thinks his Olympic fundraising campaign will help him achieve that goal.
As Jonathan prepares for regattas in Santander, Spain, and Rio de Janeiro later this year, his mother is beyond proud of her son's progress.
"This is as joyful to me as to see him take his first steps," she said. "To see him get to this point in his life, it's a huge milestone."
Will Hicks can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.
This story has been amended to reflect the following correction: Olympic-class windsurfing sails are 9.5 square meters (102 square feet) in size. The dimension listed in a Sunday Clearwater & North Pinellas Times story was incorrect.