CLEARWATER — Paige Railey, seated on a picnic table overlooking the water at Clearwater Community Sailing Center, watches as several elementary-age kids sail in after another sweltering summer day at sea. As they jump off their Optimist dinghies (think bathtub with a sail), Railey reflects on when she was their age and learning to sail.
"I was totally terrible," she said. "I failed my first 'Learn to Sail' program. I had to get special tutoring. I was just out having a good time. In my first regatta, I was just happy to get across the finish line. I was terrible for years and years."
Railey got better — much, much better.
By the time she was 19 in 2006, she was named the ISAF World Sailor of the Year. She has traveled around the world participating in elite championships. Her resume is filled with medals from some of the most prestigious regattas in the world.
What is missing is an Olympic medal. She was first eligible for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Despite being the top-ranked U.S. female sailor in the Laser Radial Class (single person dinghy), she failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
"The pressure got to me then and I caved in the first trials," Railey said. "I got my life jacket stuck in a line and I lost because of that."
Undeterred, Railey continued to train and qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London. That didn't go as planned, either. She finished eighth.
"I just under-performed," she said. "It was a location that wasn't suited for my sailing abilities. To this day I hate sailing there."
Her second shot at an Olympic medal begins in a few weeks. Today, Railey will leave Clearwater to begin the trip to Rio. Like many world champions, she will be considered a favorite. The fact that she remains one of the top female sailors in the world is a testament to her determination.
While riding on Gulf Boulevard with a group of cyclists in August 2014, she fell off her bike and landed directly on her face. She suffered a fractured spine, a concussion and lesions. There was also some nerve damage in her face and memory loss.
She said in the first four months after the accident she had dry heaves and slurred speech almost every day between 2-4 p.m.
"Just to get my brain to work like a normal person was exhausting," Railey said.
Doctors told her it would be six months before she could get back on the water. She was sailing again in six weeks. She raced with a pink protective helmet in her first few races back.
"That's how I got the nickname 'Pink Helmet Girl,' " Railey said. "I was at a major event and this young girl said, 'Oh my God, I'm doing so bad that even the girl in the pink helmet is beating me.' They said, 'That's Paige Railey.' "
Railey still suffers some memory loss, but physically she is back to peak condition. She recently returned from her final training sessions in Rio, a place that's very familiar. She calls Rio her favorite place in the world to sail.
Having experienced the Summer Games, Railey said she will not be overwhelmed by the hype that comes with the event. She learned a long time ago that pressure can be detrimental.
"I couldn't handle pressure," Railey said. "For the first five years, anytime I was under pressure I would choke. It wasn't until I lost my first world championships that I decided I was going to make a life change and not let pressure affect me.
"This Olympics I'm just relaxed. People keep asking me if I'm excited. I've done all the training I can do. If I don't have it now I'm not going to have it for the Games. I've done so much work (in Rio) that I'm as comfortable sailing there as I am in Clearwater."
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