Unheralded sailors chase dreams

Updated: August 4, 2004, 7:19 PM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Sailing has no 50,000-seat arenas, no galleries, no stadiums of loyal fans. With its limited following, the sport more often becomes a personal quest for triumph, one mostly shared with your crew.

Sometimes, as in the case of Olympic trial Sailboat 8 in the 49er class, skippered by Tim Wadlow and crew Peter Spaulding, it's a quest between lifelong friends.

Wadlow, of San Diego, Calif., and Spaulding, a Miami, Fla. transplant by way of New Jersey, began their relationship in the water rather than on top of it, when they competed as 5-year-olds on the Surf Riders Swim Team in Fair Haven, N.J.

The Wadlow family relocated to San Diego, but the families remained friendly and their interest in sailing became a passion they instilled in their sons. Both boys landed in Boston for college, but on competing teams -- Spaulding sailed for Boston College, and Wadlow, Boston University. As college rivals, the two kept a close eye on each other. Then, over beers at the American Yacht Club in Rye, N.Y., four years ago, they decided to work together toward an Olympic medal.

And the Olympic field for sailing was wide open.

When U.S. Sailing recently held their Olympic trials in South Florida for six classes of sailing events -- 49er, Yngling, Europe, Finn, Tornado and Star -- anyone who wanted to give it a try was welcome. No advanced standings apply to gain entry into the trials, in the United States at least.

"Nobody comes in here with an advantage," said U.S. Sailing Olympic Director Jonathan Harley, on the opening day of the trials in early March. "You can have a five-time champion and if they don't win the trials, they can't go to the Olympics. Anyone with the right equipment is welcome to show up."

For Wadlow and Spaulding, though, sailing is a full-time occupation, and it's not just the intensive training and chasing wind at races around the world that they must attend to. They also act as chief financial officers for their sailing expedition, securing sponsor support to help pay for the equipment, world travel and other expenses -- because the truth is that U.S. Sailing requires expensive regulation sailing apparatus, a skipper and, depending on the class in contention, a crew. The sailing is never as smooth as it seems.

"You can't do it without friends and family and have to devote a lot of your time to raising money and asking for money and fund-raising," Wadlow said. "We probably spend a quarter of our time raising money."

"Money is a lot of the battle," Spaulding said. "I feel our equipment is better than the other American guys. We were able to sail more days, take more trips to Europe and get better."

For eight days -- three races per day -- Wadlow, 29, and Spaulding, 38 streaked a path on the crystal-clear turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay. At a combined weight of 335 pounds, Wadlow and Spaulding nestled comfortably between the 325 to 350 pound limitation for the class -- one reason they chose the 49er as their road to the Olympics.

The 49er is a high-performance dinghy that is 16-feet long and with its wings extension up to 9-feet wide. The 49er class is entrancing to watch if you're lucky enough to get a seat on a spectator boat. Unlike the Yngling class, a three-crew women's event that will make its debut in the Olympics at Athens, it is nearly impossible for a spectator boat to shadow a 49er on its course because of competition-interfering wake.

But when a 49er dinghy glides past, the strength and agility required of its crew impresses in that brief moment. The turning point is the best position to catch a glimpse of what sailing a 49er is all about, when the crew of two act in tandem to accommodate for the change of sailing direction. They quickly dip under the sail to re-align themselves, then maneuver the sail from a position off the wing that has them virtually hanging off the boat, parallel to the water. It's a breathtaking sight on the water.

Wadlow and Spaulding raced well enough in March to win a a total of 48 points -- 11 points ahead of their nearest competition -- to earn the only spot on the U.S. Olympic team in their class.

"It's pretty awesome since this has been our goal for the last three years," Wadlow said after the duo earned their Olympic berth. "I think Pete and I always expected to win this regatta. We were ranked first, and we really believed in ourselves. Now we want to win a gold medal, and I think we have the skill to do it."

Now that Athens looms large in their future, Wadlow and Spaulding are spending most of the five months leading up to the Olympics training and competing in Europe. This week, they face other world-class teams in the 2004 49er World Championships in Athens. One thing was a given: the two went off toward their Olympic adventure brimming with confidence.

"I believe that we can win a gold medal, considering how much we've improved over the past year or two," Spaulding said. "I believe we have the talent to win a medal, and we have the resources. But we still know we have a lot of hard work ahead of us."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

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