MIAMI – Paige Railey is a veteran Olympic sailor. However, she might be ready to join the UFC as she has proven to be as tough a fighter as any woman in the world.
Railey is fighting not only the environment in which she operates her boat, but she is also fighting against the injuries that she sustained last year that have kept her out of the water for four months.
On Aug. 24, 2014, Railey was in a serious bicycling accident that resulted in a fractured spine as well as several lost teeth and dislocated knuckles. In addition, she required 50 stitches and had tendons exposed for the world to see.
“It became something much more than ever worrying about whether or not I would be able to sail again. I was wondering if Paige was ever going to be Paige again,” Railey said at Coral Reef Yacht Club in Coconut Grove, Florida, after she finished her final day’s performance at the ISAF Sailing World Cup in Miami, where she placed fourth.
“I did not know if I would ever be healthy again. I went a long time without being able to hold a coffee cup. If I cannot hold a coffee cup, there were times that I questioned whether or not I would be able to navigate a boat.”
However, Railey has constantly fought back and is projected to be better than ever. In only her third race back since the injury, she had a shot on the final day at attaining a medal. Despite losing out on a medal, she said she gained self-confidence in knowing that she was on the way back to being the Paige of old.
“I was able to bounce back from all of the pain and all of the adversity and almost got a medal against all of these great sailors,” she said. “I am teaching myself how to work again. I had to relearn the techniques associated with boating. I had to learn the mechanics of the boat all over again. I have learned how to fight on the water and become one with my boat.”
Railey got that toughness from Olivia Ceraolo, a childhood friend who suffered for many years with a rare form of bone cancer that eventually took her life at the age of 16. Ceraolo was a sailor, like Railey, and found her peace in the water. Railey, who specializes in the one-woman Laser Radial event, often has a companion in her boat as she knows that Ceraolo is out there with her, especially after the accident that robbed her of her physical attributes, but not her toughness.
“She was fighting for her life every single day until the very end, when they took her off of life support,” Railey said. “She was taken in her prime and to her last day, she was strong for herself and for others. She embodied a spirit within me that will never die.”
Railey is working hard these days to regain her old form and to be the pronounced favorite in Rio in the 2016 Olympic Games. She did not medal in 2012 and vows not to let that to happen again.
“I am doing it for us, for Olivia and me, this is our dream,” Railey said. “I am willing to sacrifice everything in my life to win the gold medal. 2012 was like going through a toll booth. You pay your toll and you move on. I am training so hard, every day, for the 2016 Games. I want to go in as favorite, and I want to come home with a gold medal. Olivia would like that.”
This week’s regatta did not go exactly as planned for Railey, who ultimately lost to Anne-Marie Rindom from Denmark, who took home top honors. Railey fell short of a bronze medal by seven points.
Railey actually won the last race on Saturday but did not score enough point differential to attain a medal in the cup.
“For this to be my third race back and for me to perform this well, under these conditions, I know that I am making progress and that I am coming back,” Railey said. “When I am sailing, I still have parts of my body that hurt from the accident, but I just have to fight through the pain. You can have setbacks in life, but you don’t have to give up because of them. I come from a goal-oriented family. We set goals and we continue to strive until we achieve them.”
Coming into the final day of racing, Railey knew that winning would be extremely difficult.
Weather also played a major role in the racing. The wind gusts went from real heavy earlier in the week, uncharacteristically high for Miami, to real low later in the week and on Saturday.
Railey said that the winds and the change in weather made for probably the most difficult conditions she has seen in 10 years of sailing here.
“We set up expecting to start in one set of conditions,” Railey said. “Then the race started and we found ourselves in something completely different. All through that race, if you weren't on the right end of the shift, you couldn't get to the next one."
Scott Alan Salomon is a writer from the Miami area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.