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MEET ED BAIRD // WIND WARRIOR

Bill Shore, Chairman of the Olympic Yachting Committee, rolled out of bed one morning and realized in a panic that some of the country's top sailors might not be in Savannah this summer to represent the United States.

"It seemed we were overlooking people," he said. "Many of the best keelboat sailors weren't racing in the Soling class. We had to do something."

The Soling, a 27-foot keelboat, is considered the granddaddy of all the Olympic classes. It will be the only three-handed sailboat in Savannah, Ga., this summer, and the gold medal will be awarded to the crew that wins a final, one-on-one match race.

"We looked at some of the people who were sailing on the match racing circuit," Shore said. "At that time, Ed Baird was ranked third in the world."

Shore met Baird in Savannah last summer. At first Baird was hesitant. He had run Olympic campaigns before, without much success. The 37-year-old helmsman from St. Petersburg had his hands full with a wife, son, new baby on the way, and plans for an America's Cup challenge.

But the thought of a match-racing final in front of his fellow Americans finally made up his mind.

"Sailing in the Olympics sounded good," he said. "Sailing in the Olympics here in the U.S. sounded better. But match racing in the Olympics was something I couldn't pass on."

Baird is no stranger to the Soling, the longest and heaviest of the Olympic class sailboats. In 1987, he quit a well-paying job to run an Olympic Soling campaign.

"It wasn't the first time I did something like that," he admitted. "It was a calculated risk, but I had enough confidence in myself that I thought I might just pull it off."

Baird and teammates Jim Brady and Rick Pitcairn finished third in the Soling class at the Olympic trials.

"We were close . . . real close," he recalled. "On the last day of racing we still could have won."

Instead, Baird watched John Kostecki and his crew go on to win the silver medal in Seoul.

It was the fourth time Baird had taken a shot at the Olympics (he also tried in 1976, 1980 and 1984) and come up empty-handed. When it came time for the Olympics in Barcelona, he tried a different approach.

"I had been doing a lot of lecturing and teaching," he said. "Kevin Mahaney was one of the few people who saw the value of having a sailing coach."

Baird worked behind the scenes and helped Mahaney and his crew of Jim Brady and Doug Kern win the silver in the Soling class.

About that same time, things started to click for Baird on the international match racing circuit. In 1993, he finished second at the World Championships. The following year, he scored three more match racing victories, and people like Bill Shore began to take notice.

Last year, Baird finally found his groove. A string of first-place finishes vaulted him to the top spot in the world match racing rankings, an honor never held before by a sailor from the Northern Hemisphere.

"Everything sort of just came together for me," Baird said. "The years of hard work finally paid off."

The greatest honor, however, came earlier in the year when Baird, the coach of record and sparring helmsman of Team New Zealand, watched Black Magic win the ultimate match racing event, the America's Cup.

Baird was consequently given sailing's most prestigious honor, the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award, and a really nice watch.

How do you top a performance like that?

"Winning an Olympic gold medal would be nice," Baird said.

With his sights set on Savannah, Baird enlisted the help of some of his match racing cronies.

Tony Rey of Newport, R.I., signed on. Rey, who has a philosophy degree and Olympic Star class campaign to his credit, worked with Baird on the Black Magic campaign.

Ron Rosenberg, of Long Beach, Calif., also said yes. Rosenberg, a four-time world champion, has raced every craft imaginable, from snipe to 5.5. meter. Rosenberg, a coach on the U.S. Olympic team, served as a tactician on Baird's 1995 match-racing campaign.

Add New Zealander Ross Halcrow to the team as coach and you have what could be a winning combination.

"These guys have to be familiar with what I'm doing," Baird said. "They have to make split second decisions and act without me telling them."

Baird's team has been racing together since January. They face stiff competition from crews that have raced and trained together for years.

But each regatta they get faster. Last month in Punta Gorda they finished third in the U.S. Championships.

"We were in contention right down until the end," Baird said.

About 15 to 20 Soling class boats are expected in Savannah. Baird and crew are hoping to finish in the top four during the fleet racing preliminaries, so they can continue on to the match racing finals.

"To be quite honest, he is weak in fleet racing," Shore said. "If he can make it through to the match racing he'll be in good shape."

At this point, the Soling spot on the U.S. Olympic team is still up for grabs.

"It is wide open," said John Kolius, the 1976 Soling silver medalist who is trying to repeat in '96. "If Ed can make it through the fleet racing, he has as good a chance as anybody."

Shore said Baird's mere presence in Savannah has improved competition.

"We have some very good fleet racers who now realize that they have to become good match racers too," Shore said. "In a way, things are out of balance. But after next week, we'll sort things out. We'll still have two or three months to improve before the Games."

Denmark, Sweden and Spain all have strong teams. It has been more than 10 years since the United States won a gold in the Soling class. Ed Baird thinks that is too long.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think we had a chance," he said.

Baird bio

Born: May 17, 1958.

Size: 6 feet 2, 193 pounds.

Home: St. Petersburg.

Club: St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Personal: Baird got his start at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center at age 9. A coach, lecturer and author, Baird is married (wife Lisa) and has two sons, Max, 4, and Ty, 3 months.

Baird's career highlights

+ In February, the 37-year-old St. Petersburg resident was named Rolex Yachtsman of the Year for his performances on the 1995 world match-racing circuit and his contributions as coach to the winning America's Cup syndicate.

+ On the 1995 match-racing circuit, Baird reached the semifinals of each level-one event he entered and won the grand prize at four, an achievement that vaulted him to the No. 1 ranking. Wins at the 1995 Steinlager-Logan World Match racing Championship, the Nippon Cup, the Coupe de Brut Faberge and the Baltic Match Cup helped put Baird over the top. The Floridian became the first sailor from the Northern Hemisphere to be ranked No. 1 _ an honor held exclusively by sailors from New Zealand and Australia since its inception in 1989.

+ Also in 1995, Baird served as the official sailing team coach of Team New Zealand's victorious Black Magic campaign.

+ Over a 15-year period, Baird has won five world championships including the match racing worlds in 1995, the International 50-foot World Championships in 1992, the Nation's Cup in 1991, the J-24 Worlds in 1983 and the Laser World Championships in 1980.

+ In 1992, Baird coached U.S. sailor Kevin Mahaney to a silver medal in the Soling class at the Olympics in Barcelona.

Times staff photographer Ricardo Ferro joined Ed Baird during a recent practice session at Boca Grande. Ferro rode alongside Baird's vessel in a powerboat and took his photos with a handheld camera mounted on a 20-foot pole. The camera was triggered by a remote cable.

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