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Rise and Shine on the Olympic Campaign Trail

For 49erFX sailors Erika Reineke and Lucy Wilmot, a sunrise race start in Miami is just a character building step toward Olympic glory.

March 16, 2021
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Erika Reineke and Lucy Wilmot race sailboats in the early morning hours.
Olympic 49erFX newcomers Erika Reineke and Lucy Wilmot race in the early-morning hours off Miami at the new West Marine US Open ­Sailing Series, which will host Olympic classes and Olympic Development Program sailors at ­regattas in Florida and California in 2021. Allison Chenard/US Sailing Team

My alarm goes off. I roll over to grab my phone. The bright light pierces my eyes. It’s 5:00 a.m. Half asleep, I silence it and continue to drool all over my pillow. Next, a knock on my ­bedroom door.

“Erika, are you up?”

It’s my teammate, Lucy. I want to reply with a yes, but only gibberish spews from my mouth. I know it’s time to get up. We’re launching in two hours.

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Having arrived home from racing the previous night 10 hours earlier, we’re both dazed and confused as we organize our belongings. It’s my job to get the coffee going, to whip up a breakfast, pack the cooler, and fill our water jugs. On this particular morning, however, we have a bit of a role reversal. I come out of my room like a bear emerging from hibernation. I stumble to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and as I look in the mirror, I laugh at myself. I still have sunscreen caked on my face from the previous day. I guess I don’t need to reapply.

Oddly enough, this comforts me and I feel ready to seize the day. I seek out the Keurig. Today, caffeine is my breakfast of choice. At 5:45 a.m., I pour a second cup of coffee into my Yeti mug, we pack the car, and off we go.

From our home base in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we have a 45-minute commute to the US Sailing Center in Miami’s Coconut Grove, and on this day, the passage is a Florida miracle: green traffic lights and no accidents on Interstate 95. It’s clear sailing all the way, and DJ Lucy sets the mood with Darius Rucker and Dolly Parton hits. Next up, Neil Diamond. Each of us were Boston college girls at one point, so “Sweet Caroline” is an obvious choice.

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After cruising down Miami’s Bayshore Drive, we pull into the sailing center. “Knee Deep” by the Zac Brown Band is our entry tune. With a music lineup like this, the day is off to a good start. But it’s only 6:15 a.m.

It’s still dark and there isn’t a soul in the parking lot. We walk over to our boat, Ricky Bobby, turn on our flashlights, and go to work. After setting up the rig and tuning it for the morning conditions, we look out on the horizon. There’s a band of clouds across Key Biscayne, illuminated above the horizon as dawn’s early light brings life to the boat park. Sailors trickle in, the sun rises at 7:05 a.m., and we are scheduled to launch promptly at 7:30 for an 8:15 start. It’s time to “shake-and-bake.”

The night before, Lucy and I had reviewed our prestart routine because we had been struggling to get all the information we needed to feel confident starting in the position we wanted. Today is going to be different. We’ve formulated a routine that will allow us to nail the line at go and start in our desired location—even if that start is at the crack of dawn, which is something we’ll need to get used to as we continue on our Olympic campaign.

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Earlier in the regatta, we had a bit of a mishap with our flow and footwork during one light-air jibe. Lucy went to flatten the boat and completely missed the wing and fell straight off the boat. I looked back and saw her dangling from the trapeze wire, waist below the water, attempting to flop her upper body back onto the wing like a seal.

Lucy Wilmot rights her sailing boat during a capsize.
Lucy Wilmot rights her 49erFX after missing her trapeze wire and capsizing during the West Marine US Open Sailing Series Miami. Allison Chenard/US Sailing Team

Unsure what to do, I dropped the kite sheet and went to pull her back into the boat, but as soon as I started laughing (at her and with her), I had no strength to haul her from the sea. We’ve had this problem in practice before. If one of us starts to giggle, the other follows, and soon enough we can’t grip anything, or make it through a maneuver until all the laughter stops. Still dragging through the water, she yelled, “Erika!” There was no point in trying; I had a case of the giggles and was utterly useless. Somehow she managed to get herself back on the boat, but it was too late. We were both now on the same wing, which dipped, and we capsized in 3 knots. To Ricky Bobby’s point, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” In this race, we were definitely last.

Attempting to avoid another capsize, we practice jibes on our way to the starting line. Once we get there, we still have items to check off our prestart routine. We hover below the starting box, analyzing the layline and warming up with a few accelerations. When our start goes off, we hit the line perfectly.

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The last race of the regatta comes down to a jibing duel between us and the first-place boat. Coming into the gate, we are five boatlengths shy of the starboard layline and on a collision course with our competitor. The opposing team jibes on top of us, and as the wind leaves my kite, I turn to Lucy, who—unphased—says, “We have to hold them to port lay.”

With 30 seconds to port ­layline, I’m not sure if they have the time to roll us and jibe ahead. All I know is we are moving at a snail’s pace and the sail is taking forever to refill. They open a gap and jibe to cross and get ahead. But, failing to make the cross, they have to jibe into an overlap at the gate.

I’ve seen this film before. Rounding the mark, we are going to jibe simultaneously into an overlap, and this time our competitor will have the upper hand as we approach the finish. Lucy and I know this jibe has to be one for the ages. We bear away into it, and Lucy focuses on the rate of turn and angle of heel while I lock eyes on my kite, which floats through the turn and refills on the new jibe, as it’s supposed to. Lucy, like a bunny, hops to the new wing to flatten the boat, which accelerates forward. We break the overlap, point our bow to the finish, and win the race.

At 9:30 a.m., we earn our first silver medal at the West Marine US Open Sailing regatta. We’re back at the dock by 9:45, proud of ourselves, proud of the improvements we’ve made since our last regatta. But most of all, we’re proud of our teamwork. We dream of a vibrant journey together, all the way to Paris in three short years. These moments are what Olympic campaigning is all about. And that’s why we rise. To shine.

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