When Paige Railey guides her Laser Radial around the Weymouth and Portland sailing venue at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she will look like a solo artist, a 25-year-old sailing star clad in the red, white and blue and maneuvering her craft toward a potential medal.
In fact, Railey is never alone on the water. Every time the Clearwater, Fla., native sails, she thinks of her late friend, Olivia Ceraolo, and the many other cancer-stricken children who face situations so much more severe than a shifting wind.
Olivia and Paige became friends as children when they met through sailing, a passion for both. Olivia’s life came to a tragic end at the age of 16 after she lost a battle with bone cancer in 2004. However, her spirit persists through the indelible impression she left on Railey and so many more, particularly in those final months when her attitude was, Railey says, so much more positive than all of those around her.
“Olivia was an amazing person,” Railey said. “She was incredibly strong and selfless and at her moment of being most sick, she was so strong for everybody else. She was helping everyone else. It was really teaching us the value of life and what it means to be healthy and how important it is to help other people.
“The fact that I’m sailing with her name on my boat and a part of her is still being remembered by other people, it’s like she’s still living in all of our hearts.”
Railey has announced that a portion of her 2011 earnings will benefit the Olivia Lives Foundation (olivialives.com), which brightens the day for many sick children by providing them an exciting afternoon on the water or at a local beach. Railey’s brother, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Zach Railey, is also involved in the fundraising effort. In London — or more specifically Weymouth and Portland, on Britain’s south coast, where the sailing events will take place — both will be representing their country, their yacht club, their family and Olivia.
The siblings’ gesture is not just a one-time thing, too. Providing for the foundation and the kids who remind her so much of Olivia is a crucial factor in Paige Railey’s drive.
“She’s an extreme motivator for me when I’m out training, when I’m out sailing,” she said of Olivia. “Because when I look up and I see the Olivia Lives on my boat, it motivates me to push that much harder, because if I do that much better in this race, that means I’ll be able to help out other kids that are in her position. It represents a lot to me.”
Case in point came this past December at the ISAF World Championship regatta in Perth, Australia. Here was Railey, four years removed from narrowly missing an Olympic bid in 2008, now staring at a second chance to qualify to sail for her country on the biggest stage. Most athletes in a similar situation would be thinking of little more then what it would be like to stand on the podium and hear their national anthem. Railey could not stop talking about what it could mean to sick kids back home.
“It was my Olympic Trials, but I remember I kept saying to my mom over and over, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to get top three at worlds because I can donate a lot of money if I can do that,’” she said.
Railey indeed finished third, qualifying her for a spot in the London Games and providing extra funding for the kids back home.
This is a mindset created in Railey through her connection to Olivia and Olivia’s family. Not that Railey was ever a selfish individual. Far from it. But she does admit to having a time in her life when she was more focused on personal goals: Olympic Games or bust, the mantra might’ve been.
Olivia, her remarkable spirit, and everything her foundation has provided, has changed all that.
“Before, I was extremely focused on my sailing and what I had to do to achieve,” Railey said. “And then it really opened up my eyes that I have a great life, I have a great family, I have a great job, and there are others out there that are not as fortunate and that I should really try to help out others. It took me from being very focused on myself and my career to still doing that but also [being] focused on helping others.
“So now, instead of going and wanting to win this regatta for myself, it’s, ‘Oh I want to win this regatta, but if I do then I’ll be able to donate X amount of dollars to help someone out.’ It’s really motivating.”
Olivia was a writer. In a piece entitled “Trading Places,” she cited Railey as the one person she most admires, and with whom she would most want to trade places. In it, she penned the following:
“She is almost like a drive for us, or at least for me. She keeps my attitude positive, which in turn, keeps me going out on the water. How cool would it be to make this kind of impact on other people?”
Little did Olivia know it was a two-way street, and one that would have an incredible impact on one of America’s top sailors, as well as the children searching for a little of that Olivia spirit.