CLEARWATER — Olympic silver medalist Zach Railey knew weight would be an issue in the light air off Qingdao, China.
"The lighter the boat, the faster it goes, especially when there is not much wind," the U.S. Finn class sailor said Tuesday, just 12 hours after his return home from the Games. "So I really made a point of trying to get as lean as possible."
This time last year, the 24-year-old Clearwater resident weighed 220 pounds. But through a grueling fitness and nutrition regimen, Railey trimmed his 6-foot-4 frame to 200 before the Olympics.
"In the last couple of weeks, I got down to 190," he said, struggling with jet lag. "I think it made all the difference in the world."
Railey, who started his career as an Optimist sailor and moved up to Lasers before settling on the Finn, traveled to Qingdao earlier this summer to practice on the Olympic course.
"What we learned on that trip really helped," he said. "My first race ended up being the most important."
In the series opener, Railey found himself rounding the final weather mark in the middle of the 26-boat fleet.
"I knew from the practice runs that one side of the course was a little faster because of the current and wind conditions," he said. "It was a risky move, but I jibed and cut across the course before anybody else could."
Railey instantly went from 13th place to second.
He followed with a fifth-place finish and two more seconds. Heading into the fifth event of what he thought would be a 10-race series, Railey had a firm grasp on first place.
But Britain's Ben Ainslie, who won the Finn class gold medal in the past two Olympics, was not about to give up his title easily.
"He is the best in the world," Railey said. "Ben is not the kind of guy that makes many mistakes."
In the next three races, Railey finished seventh twice and then eighth, dropping him into second place, six points behind Ainslie and five points ahead of France's Guillaume Florent.
On the final day of the opening series, bad weather limited the field to one race instead of three, setting the stage for the final medal contest and limiting the field to just 10 boats.
Railey knew he couldn't catch Ainslie in points, so he focused on holding off the Frenchman. "When I realized I wasn't going to beat Ben, I decided to do what I had to do to protect the silver (medal)," Railey said.
He successfully blocked Florent's wind in the next race, and sat 12 points behind Ainslie heading into the final medal race. Ainslie needed to only finish ahead of Railey to claim the gold, setting up a match race in the final.
"We didn't even think about the rest of the fleet," Railey said.
When it was over, Ainslie took the gold, Railey the silver and Florent the bronze.
"My parents were waiting on the seawall with a big American flag," he said. "I did what I had set out to do."
Railey hopes to make the U.S. team again for the 2012 Games in England. In the meantime, he wants to win the Finn World and European championships.
"I'd like to go to London," he said. "But I want to go with my sister."
Paige Railey, who at 21 is one of the top Laser sailors in the world, narrowly missed a chance to go to Beijing.
"That would be something else … a brother and sister sailing in the Olympics," he said. "That's the plan. I guess we will just have to wait and see."