Mark Mendelblatt remembers all too well being taken to school four years ago in San Francisco Bay. It was a lesson thoroughly learned.
"They say the most important thing is preparation, and I didn't do it," said Mendelblatt, a Laser sailor from St. Petersburg who is competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials that start today in Houston.
Halfway through the trials for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Mendelblatt held a comfortable lead but John Myrdal of Hawaii was closing in. The last two days they were even. Their deciding race was the second of two on the next-to-last day of qualifying. The overall winner would sail in the Olympics; the runnerup would watch.
Mendelblatt made it to Sydney _ coaching a girlfriend in the Europe class competition. Other than that, he watched Myrdal, who finished 17th in the Games.
"I didn't prepare; I didn't learn San Francisco Bay," Mendelblatt said. "The current there is very strong, very uneven. He had a local guy coaching him who pretty much knew the bay inside and out."
He's hoping for a better result this time. Mendelblatt, 30, is ranked No. 1 among U.S. Laser sailors, the only American to finish in the top 10 in three world championships.
He'll be among the 32 sailors competing in the trials for the lone U.S. Laser Olympic berth. So will Myrdal, along with Brad Funk and Brett Davis of Largo and Zach Railey of Clearwater.
"I've beaten these guys in international competition," Mendelblatt said. "But they're all good sailors and being in a regatta leaves it open for anything to happen _ and most of them have beaten me at one point."
Tim Landt of Tierra Verde, president of the International Laser Class Association, class representative to the Olympic Sailing Committee, calls Mendelblatt "the total package."
"He's got the perfect structure (6 feet 2, 180 pounds)," Landt said. "He's got extremely muscular legs, and he's very lean and very tenacious, like Lance Armstrong.
He also is a former college All-American, "probably one of the finest racers in the world I've raced against," said Davis, a fellow Laser sailor at the Houston trials. They have been racing each other for 20 years; Mendelblatt has won most of the time. "He has the ability to jump into any type of sailboat and do really well right from the beginning," Davis said. "He's a very intense competitor, but he has a lot of sportsmanship on the water, too."
Mendelblatt has sailed most everything from Lasers to OneWorld Challenge, an America's Cup yacht. Eight months ago he completed three years as the traveler (working the control that moves the boom) aboard the Seattle-based yacht.
"That's work," he said, "almost like a regular job. Most professional sailors are big-boat sailors. You have to be at work every day, be where they want you to be. But you're paid well and it's exciting and fun to sail on the most expensive yachts in the world."
His parents are longtime recreational sailors. By age 6, he was taking classes at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center. But it was his brother David, almost three years older, who got him into competitive sailing at age 10 on Optimists, sort of miniature Lasers, at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
"I tried other sports but I wasn't any good at any of them," Mendelblatt said. "And being the younger brother, I was always trying to catch up with David. So naturally when he started sailing, I followed."
Mendelblatt sailed for St. Petersburg High at the nationals every year, competed in countless regattas around Florida and, each summer, around the nation.
When Mark was a freshman, David went to Tufts University in Massachusetts, "so three years later I did, too."
College sailing is highly competitive, with regattas every weekend. That's where Mendelblatt blossomed. Upon graduating from Tufts he mounted a brief campaign for the Laser trials in Savannah, Ga., for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He came in third ("I didn't put enough time into it"), then began three full-time years as a broker for William R. Huff & Co. The sailing itch returned in 1998; he took a hiatus from Huff and resumed sailing Lasers on the international circuit.
He still is with Huff, but his bank account, as it has most times he has sailed at length, is ebbing. Laser sailing does not provide an income. Quite the opposite; a couple of small sponsors and loans or gifts from friends and family defray some of the cost. Mendelblatt lays out about $25,000 a year.
And being a broker means working on commission, which means being on the phone a lot, drumming up business. Ship-to-shore doesn't quite cut it.
But sailing Lasers is what Mendelblatt does. It's what he loves. "All the rest of it," he said, "somehow it gets taken care of."