She’s sweet, petite, and unassuming onshore and on the racecourse. But engage her in a final-leg tacking duel, or try to pass her on the run, and she’ll calmly and deftly put you in your place. That’s Jody Swanson, the 40-year-old, two-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year (1989 and 2005), and reigning queen of the Lightning class. From the lakes of her beloved Buffalo, N.Y., Swanson has emerged as one of the sport’s greatest women competitors, and the root of her success is no surprise.
What does it mean to be named Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year a second time?
It means a lot to me because it signifies that the path I’ve taken through sailing can be successful. I decided long ago that sailing for the fun of it, outside the industry, was the direction I wanted to head. I’ve been fortunate to travel the world, teamed with and sailing against some extremely talented sailors in several Olympic campaigns and championship regattas. I’ve learned something from each adventure and continually added to my sailing knowledge. The Lightning Class also deserves much credit. The class has been very good to me in many respects. While I haven’t necessarily reached all my goals, I certainly have been able to build a solid platform that has provided a long, fun road of sailing.
Was one of your goals to win the Lightning North Americans?
The Lightning Class has always been such a huge part of my life, and with the 2004 North Americans at my home club, it was all extremely special. The Lightning has so much to offer so many different sailors and the class works hard to encourage new sailors to try out the boat. It’s a joy to sail, and though it has a lot of strings to pull, it’s very forgiving. I can’t say enough about what the Lightning has meant to my family and me.
You won the North American’s by 20 points; how’d you manage that?
Having fun! It’s not much of a secret, but I think it was the key for our team. It was tough sailing as we had the whole range of conditions, from a 30-mph blow to cancelled races due to no breeze. I had a fantastic team with Tom Starck and Skip Dieball. Skip made sure we were always in the right gear and Tom managed our tactical game. I literally just concentrated on steering, and of course, making sure I made the lunches specifically to order. We stayed focused on our own boat and on doing the best we could with any given situation. I am a bit embarrassed, but I never looked at the scores and to this day still have not. So, I can’t comment on the margin of victory. But I have to tell you, one of the most exciting parts of the regatta was winning the Women’s NAs. It really set a great tone for the championship regatta.
What was so special about the Women’s event?
It was a great experience because I sailed with two of our juniors at the Buffalo Canoe Club, Maddie Waldron and Lauren Jones. I had just finished a three-year Yngling Olympic campaign and was a bit tired of sailing. Maddie and Lauren brought such enthusiasm and excitement to the boat that I found it contagious. They were so happy to be out on the water sailing, results were secondary at best. Having fun and enjoying the day was our primary goal. They gave me a fresh look at the sport and really set the mood for the remainder of the week.
The Buffalo Canoe Club is special to you, isn’t it?
It’s where it all began for me-on the Canadian beaches of Lake Erie. It’s a family club that is very proud of the world, national and Olympic champions that call the BCC home. I’m sure it’s near the top of the list when it comes to the total number of champions from one club. I might be slightly exaggerating, but it’s truly an impressive record considering the club is only open a few months out of the year. I grew up within a bike ride of the BCC and spent all summer goofing around on the water. As young kids we were encouraged to race with the talents from the preceding generations and today the tradition continues. Larry MacDonald is leading the parade, sailing major regattas with his kids, Adam, age 10, and Joy, age 13.
Were your parents always supportive of your sailing?
I fondly remember my mom taking all three of us Sunfish sailing up the Niagara River for ice cream or a picnic. We were young enough that all three of us fit in the bottom of the cockpit. She demonstrated the love and passion for the sport.
My father, a man who always wore a tie when racing on Sundays, was a bit more formal with his instruction. He waited until my mother taught us how to sail, then he stepped in with the racing perspective. I still clearly remember the first Lightning race I skippered, I must have been about 10 or 11. I hit the ground tackle of the first mark as we rounded it in last place. Dad explained what we had to do to exonerate ourselves, to which, I commented, “But Dad, no one will ever know we hit it.”
His lecture came through very clearly; integrity and sportsmanship are and will always be, the foundation of this great sport. From there we moved on to using forks and knives in many great discussions at the dinner table. My mother has watched an unprecedented number of sailboat races. She was out during the North Americans and the 5- to 6-foot waves and 30-knot gusts were not a deterrent. I’m always comforted knowing she’s out there cheering for us.
How do you look back on your Olympic campaigns?
I never intentionally set out to do an Olympic campaign, but somehow I ended up doing three-the 470 twice and the Yngling once. One challenge led to another and eventually I found myself taking on one of the toughest challenges, winning our Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, I never achieved that goal, but I enjoyed the experience and the great people I sailed with and against. I loved the focus on learning and trying to be better. It was a huge commitment, one I never regretted.
How do you balance the rest of your life with sailing? Like work for instance?
I’ve found working helps to keep a good attitude towards sailing and sailing does the same for work. A very smart sailor once told me that one of the keys to success is desire. I have learned that sailing on a team and managing employees is a very similar process. There is an incredible amount of carryover in the skill sets.
Competing in the world of sailing has also trained me to treat everyone equally at work. It doesn’t matter the age, intelligence, sex, color, or size, the racecourse has proven to me we are all equal. Sometimes adjustments need to be made or the methods are different, but at the start and finish line we are all the same, competing on the same level. Lucky for me, I have an understanding brother and sister who do a great job of covering for me while I am out playing.
Any suggestions for racers trying to improve their game?
Sailing is a great sport because it is ageless, thus the amount of resources are plentiful. Take advantage of all the opportunities surrounding you, there is a wealth of knowledge in the sailing community that wants to be shared.