San Francisco

Sailors Riding Steady Course Toward Olympics

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s most scenic settings — The Golden Gate Bridge — sailors Maggie Shea and Steph Roble were bogged down in some of the worst sailing imaginable.

"This is almost as bad as it gets," Shea laughed, as the 16-foot boat languished in a rare windless morning on the famously windy San Francisco Bay. If not for a photo op, it’s unlikely the two veteran sailors would’ve even ventured out in such lackluster conditions.

"I got nothing," Roble assessed as the boat drifted.

Despite the lack of wind, Shea and Roble have plenty of force in their metaphorical sails as they head into qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The longtime competitors combined efforts years ago to compete in the 49er FX class, a two-person, high-performance sailing dinghy where each sailor has their own trapeze.

"So Steph and I have been sailing against each other — with — and against each other for sixteen years now," said Shea, who grew up sailing her grandfather’s boat on Lake Michigan.

Shea and Roble have already qualified for U.S. Sailing’s 49er FX class for the Olympic Games, but now they face two key trials to qualify themselves as the athletes to sail in it. This month, they compete in the 2019 World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand, before heading to the 2020 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, where the final U.S. Sailing team roster will be selected.

And so the pair, who Shea describes as once "friend-emies," is traveling around the globe, practicing in numerous locations, such as the San Francisco Bay, to get a feel for the myriad of wind conditions they’d likely face in Enoshima, Japan — site of the 2020 Olympic sailing competition.

"It’s a huge variety," said Shea. "So we need to train in a lot of different places. San Francisco offers a really challenging sea state."

Well, it does on most days. It should be noted the wind that day on the bay did indeed kick up, with the pair of sailors tethering themselves in and leaning out over the bay out as the boat began to slice across the water.

"Now we’re talking," Shea shouted as the craft’s sails pulled taut.

Like Shea, Roble grew up around the sport, sailing scows on the waters of Lake Beulah, Wisconsin.

"I like to say that I started sailing right when I was born," Roble said. "My dad sailed around their lake right when I came home from the hospital with 'It’s a girl on the sail.'"

After competing against each other in high school and college, the two sailors now spend some 300 days a year together, immersed in a thick schedule of travel, practice and competition. They may sometimes bicker over things like dishes left in the sink and your typical get-on-your-nerves small stuff — but that minutiae is quickly swept aside.

"We’ve definitely learned how to be there for each other and how to be there as a team," Shea said. "We just remind ourselves there’s no one I’d rather be sailing with on this journey."

The women are unified in their boat and in their quest for making the Olympic team and sailing away with gold. The ultimate irony of their journey would be to go from competitors to sharing a tier together on the podium.

"Steph and Maggie’s teamwork, it has some history like so many of our sailing community," said U.S. Sailing head coach Luther Carpenter. "Of course at this level we’re looking for the magical compliment in the boat, both physically and how big of a goal it is in their life today."

The goal of Olympic victory looms large for Shea and Roble — it’s the North Star they navigate by — waking moments filled strategizing toward the apex of a sport that almost seems like a birthright.

As the wind finally appeared on that recent day of sailing, filling the boat’s sails, the pair seemed to communicate almost telepathically — maneuvering effortlessly around the craft’s tiny square footage as the San Francisco Bay seemed to reclaim its reputation for wind.

"It just really makes me appreciate how lucky we are to be on this journey together," Roble said as the sails flapped and the boat leaned into a sharp turn.

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