In the U.S. Olympic sailing trials, there are only two options. Win or go home. At Olympic trials last October in Newport Beach, Calif., Zach Railey won, realizing a dream he first had a dozen years ago. Now the 24-year-old Clearwater native is in Qingdao, China, making final preparations to compete in the Finn-class sailing race on Aug. 9.
Only the top American sailor in the Finn, a heavyweight single-man boat, gets an Olympic berth. Railey will face a field of 25 sailors from around the world, including 2004 gold medalist Ben Ainslie of England and current world champion Jonas Hoegh-Christensen of Denmark.
Railey said a dozen sailors have the mettle to win one of the three medals.
And he thinks he is one of them.
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Railey's sailing career started at age 8.
His father, Dan, said he was sitting in the chair of the family dentist.
"What are the children doing for the summer?" dentist Pete Crawford asked Dan Railey.
Zach Railey was playing baseball and tennis. He was a good kid, but he had his run-ins with his mom and dad, Dan Railey said.
Crawford suggested the Raileys send their three children to sailing camp at the Clearwater Yacht Club.
Zach fell in love the first day.
"It was the attraction of being near the water that pulled me toward sailing," he said.
But his life changed in a golden flash on a track far from home.
In 1996, when Michael Johnson sprinted his way into history with those golden shoes, Railey stared in amazement along with millions of other TV viewers watching the Atlanta Olympics.
He called a meeting with his parents. He was only 12, but he announced his goal: the Olympic Games.
In setting his sights high and devoting his teenaged years to sailing, Railey said he missed out on movies with friends and homecoming dances.
"I was so concentrated on my sailing that I didn't have a lot of free time," he said.
Railey graduated from Clearwater High School and headed to the University of Miami. He continued sailing while in college, but not with the 'Canes. The collegiate boats were too small for Railey, who stands 6 feet 4 and weighed 215 pounds in college.
He graduated in May 2006 with a degree in sports administration and business management — tools Railey said have helped him raise the money necessary to continue his racing career.
His family, including sisters Paige and Brooke, have been there every step of the way.
Paige Railey, 21, also sails, rising quickly in the ranks of female Laser sailors. She qualified as the alternate for the Beijing Olympics. In 2006, the International Sailing Federation and Rolex named her women's World Sailor of the Year.
Her twin sister, Brooke, sailed in her childhood, but now serves as Railey's anchor, grounding him when necessary.
Zach Railey credits his mother, Ann, with much of his success.
"She does everything we have to have done behind the scenes before we go on the water," Railey said. "It's her full-time job."
Ann Railey said raising two world-class athletes is simply a matter of keeping organized, which can be hard when her children are on different continents competing.
Zach Railey said he spends a lot of time away from home, but his natural friendliness helps him along the way.
"It gets pretty lonely pretty quick," he said.
On the racing circuit, Railey passes time with his competitors, going out to dinner with them and comparing schedules.
And because of his demanding schedule, Railey, who is single, said he rarely dates.
But when he does get a chance to go home, Railey said he tries to be as normal as possible.
"Outside of all this Olympics stuff, yeah, I'm a normal guy," he laughed.
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The Olympics will be anything but normal. Only a few seconds separate the winners from the losers. Sometimes, it's mere inches.
But Railey said his plan is to sail a focused, disciplined race.
"In sailing you have to be very consistent," he said. "You don't have to win every race to do well in the regatta."
Finn-class sailors are the biggest in the games. Light-wind courses like Qingdao favor boats that weigh less and make racing tough.
"It's a mental game for sure in light wind," said Railey, who has dropped about 20 pounds to prepare for the Olympics.
But Railey said he's more than ready. He follows a strict training regimen, starting with an hour of cardio exercise in the morning, three to five hours out on the water and ending with a two-hour session in the gym before bed.
When he gets back from China, Railey said he's going to take a few months off. He'll start with catching up with college friends in Miami.
Then, his sights will be focused on 2012 and another Olympic berth.
"My sister and I are definitely going again," he said.
But first, he plans to come home a winner.
Jackie Alexander can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.