Underdog sailors defy the odds

It almost sounds like a riddle.

What happens to a sailing club with no coach and no tryouts that has never won a regatta when it competes against established teams at College of William and Mary’s trademark event?

It wins.

And thus, the underdog story of the GW sailing club is born.

Entirely student-run, the team relies on allocations from the University’s club sports office, the Student Association and dues from the 16 members of the team. For other expenses, its holds a Sailing School/Learn to Sail program each semester for GW students and faculty.

Due to finances, hiring a coach or purchasing a fleet of new 13-foot Flying Juniors (the two-person boat typically used in races, which cost $5,000 each) is a ways off. Because the school does not own boats, GW cannot host regattas, and because they do not have a coach, more experienced team members teach novices, who make up about half the team.

Since the team only has two old boats left over from an answered petition to former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, it rents more boats from the National Maritime Heritage Foundation or uses equipment from Georgetown University during scrimmages with The Hoyas. Unlike basketball players, whose practices take place only blocks away from their residences, sailing members must take the Metro three times a week to Southwest D.C.

This would not appear to be the typical equation for an upset.

But despite the uneven playing field, GW managed to beat out seven teams and clubs – University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Christopher Newport University, Hampton College, Penn State, the College of William and Mary, and American – at the Colony Cup March 29 and 30, to take first place.

“The difference between us and a lot of people we race against is that they have millions of dollars to spend on sailing, and they have Olympic-caliber coaching and recruiting, and we have none of that, and we still have to go and compete against them on a weekly basis,” freshman co-captain Will Ricketson said.

Ricketson came in second in the A race with freshman Melissa Aszkler. Junior Alex Paisner, senior Kevin Fink and freshman Kyle Dattola-Harris secured first place in the B race, which also gave the Colonials the final win.

Defying odds, the Colonials came in first place overall with 37 points, beating out second place finisher Hampton – a program coached and funded by their school – by almost 20 points.

“Even though we have minimal funding, no coach and don’t sail in our own boats, we are one of the better club teams in the mid-Atlantic,” Paisner said in an e-mail. “The William and Mary regatta was huge for us because while we’ve been decent for a number of years, we’d never actually won a regatta before.”

Aside from financial woes, the team has had other setbacks since its inception in the early 1990s.

When junior Kathleen Hall attempted to join the team, she found a Web site that had not been updated since 2000. A new site has since been created on the GW student organization page.

“In 2005, when I started at GW, I was interested in getting involved with the team,” said Hall, who served as president of the club this season. “I learned that the team had deteriorated over the years and that the current officers weren’t interested in running the team. Furthermore, the past members no longer wanted to participate.”

Hall restarted the team with three other students. With the help of Aubre Jones, head of GW’s intramurals program and the club’s advisor, that four-person team has grown to 16 this year.

“The team has come so far in these few years; I can’t wait to see how the team will progress in the years to come,” Hall said.

Still, the biggest issue the club faces is attracting seasoned racers. The majority of the better racers are underclassmen, Paisner said. The addition of a few more experienced sailors in the next few years could put the squad up in the ranks of the coached and recruited, regardless of their finances.

“Getting the word out there is really important because there are sailors around campus, but not a lot of people know about our team,” Paisner said. “All we need is a few more solid racers to put us into contention with some of the varsity programs.”

But unlike University-funded varsity teams, the sailing club does not recruit. It takes anyone with an interest, and voluntary practices make putting in the work an individual choice. Only about half of the members have previous sailing experience – and the team takes pride in that.

“It makes us really proud, what we’re doing, because a lot of these other varsity programs that we have to compete against are not student-run; they’re run by the University’s athletic department,” Ricketson said. “When we can beat those teams it makes us feel really good because we’re small and we don’t have much resources, but we do really well for what we’ve been given.”

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