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Windsurfer sees gold on the horizon

Ben Barger, 27, sails through Maximo Channel near Eckerd College on Monday. He spends about $70,000 a year on his passion.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Ben Barger, 27, sails through Maximo Channel near Eckerd College on Monday. He spends about $70,000 a year on his passion.

ST. PETERSBURG — The dream had all but died.

After years of training and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, Ben Barger fell just short of reaching the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens.

The St. Petersburg-based windsurfer returned home broke and downbeat, but his life has certainly looked up since then.

In those four years, Barger has gotten married, graduated from college and become the top U.S. windsurfer, bound for Beijing next month.

The 27-year-old now trains at his alma mater of Eckerd College, right on Boca Ciega Bay. The dozens of kids at summer camp there don't know it, but there's a contender for a gold medal in their midst.

"It brings a lot of pride down here," said Alizza Punzalan-Hall, community relations director for Eckerd College. "You'll hear about a swimmer, you'll hear about track and field, but you won't normally hear about windsurfing."

Barger's task isn't to be the richest or most famous; it's to be the best. His Olympic quest seems natural for the only son in a competitive family.

Barger's dad, Jim, always had a fascination with sailboats. He took his son out all the time, for fun and in races.

One day when Barger was 8, a windsurfer whizzed by his boat, even when the sailboat was going about as fast as it could go. Barger immediately wanted on this speedy craft.

For a few years, he begged his dad to get him windsurfing gear. Jim Barger finally relented.

"We were having a good time; and that's all it was at first," he said. "Somewhere along the line, Ben got serious."

Barger began selling T-shirts of his own design out of the trunk of his car to buy gear, but the bill quickly grew as he improved.

Windsurfing is much more popular in Europe than in the United States, so Barger had to find a way to get overseas to compete.

By the time he graduated last year with a degree in international business, he had learned how to design Web pages and became a nutritional consultant.

"It's all about saving cash, man," he said.

Barger lives with his parents in St. Petersburg, so almost all the money he earns goes to his training. Barger said he spends nearly $70,000 a year on equipment, training and travel.

He gets a little help from USA Sailing and organizes fundraisers in the Tampa Bay area. He earns the rest of the money with a consulting job building Web sites.

But well-funded windsurfers from other countries won't be able to use higher-quality equipment to win.

In the Olympics, every racer has the exact same equipment, eliminating any mechanical advantages.

"It's athlete versus athlete, and that's why I do it," Barger said. "It's the epitome of 'who's faster'?"

Andrew Dunn can be reached at adunn@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8150.

>>fast facts

What's windsurfing?

In windsurfing, athletes stand on a board a yard wide and manipulate a sail about 16 feet tall. The goal is to maneuver the sail to catch as much wind as possible and finish a trapezoid course first. Windsurfers can reach up to 58 mph. The Olympics will feature 16 races in nine days. "It's the Tour de France on a boat," Barger said.

Windsurfer sees gold on the horizon 07/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 2:40pm]
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