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Daunting Task Ahead for Zach Railey

By Vicki Michaelis | July 28, 2012, 3 p.m. (ET)

Zach Railey

LONDON -- Scrawled on the surfaces of Zach Railey’s sailboat is a mosaic of motivational phrases.

“It looks like a blackboard gone crazy,” he says.

One phrase, “Be Zach” -- written on each side of the dinghy -- could be Railey’s most resounding mantra over the next six days. After winning a silver medal in the Finn class at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Railey’s aim to upgrade to gold could be one of the most daunting tasks of the London Games. He must unseat British sailor Ben Ainslie, who with a victory would become the winningest Olympic sailor ever. He must do this, of course, in Ainslie’s home waters.

“I believe that I can beat him,” Railey says. “A lot of people won’t say that. I look at it like, OK, he’s a competitor. I’ve got to get as good as I can. If Zach’s best can be better than Ben’s best, then I’m going to win."

A 10-time world champion, Ainslie has won in Finn at the last two Olympics. Overall, he has three Olympic golds and a silver. “There’s going to be tons of pressure on him,” Kenneth Andreasen, US Sailing’s high performance director and head coach, says of Ainslie. “So who knows how he’s going to react.”

Railey and Ainslie begin their 2012 Olympic regatta Sunday in Weymouth. The medal race is Friday. Railey, 28, has more than belief in himself on his side. He sails solo, but at these Games he has his longtime companion in the sport, younger sister Paige, in close proximity.

Paige, 25, joins him on the 2012 U.S. Olympic sailing team after misfortune derailed her shot at the 2008 roster. Her jacket got caught in a boom during qualifying, flipping her boat. A bronze medalist at last year’s world championships, she will compete in Laser Radial, starting Monday. 

“It was devastating to not go together (to the Beijing Games),” her brother says. “For the last four years, it was like, ‘We are not doing that again.’ We would be in the gym and just so tired and not wanting to be there, and I’d look at her and I was like, ‘We are not doing that again.’”

The Raileys, who grew up in Clearwater, Fla., began sailing after the family dentist suggested to their mom that she enroll 8-year-old Zach in a summer sailing program. Paige and her twin sister, Brooke, followed three years later. Brooke sailed until she was 16. “My brother, at my first event, told me, ‘Count to 10 and tack,’” Paige says. “So my first regatta, I was going upwind, I'd count to 10 and tack. I didn't care who was there, who I ran into.”

Says Zach: “I didn't actually think she was going to do it, because you never would tack every 10 seconds.” Most of their sailing discussions since have been much more helpful. Zach says having his sister at races is a “competitive advantage.”

“When you go to a teammate, and then you go to a teammate who’s also a family member, it’s a completely different dynamic, a completely different understanding,” he says. They understand the sacrifices each has made – the missed high school proms, the Friday nights spent in the gym, the rigors of international travel. They speak a common language, often finishing each other’s sentences.

“If we’re both exhausted, I’ll look at him and go, ‘Ugh, today,’ and he’ll go, ‘Ugh, I know,’” Paige says.

Adds Zach: “Then we’ll put the TV on and we’ll just stare at it.” 

Paige was the first person Zach called after winning silver in Beijing. It was 4 a.m. in Florida, and after she answered the phone in a groggy voice, he said simply, “I did it.”

“The last Olympics was a really big turning point for me with Zach,” Paige says. “It brought us really close because I wasn’t able to go, and I had a lot of respect for my brother the way that he treated the Olympics with me, because he knew it was really hard for me. So he knew I was there for him, but I wasn’t there completely because I was hurting over it a bit.”

Four years later, they’re at the Olympics to do something separately, but together. They qualified for the 2012 Games on the same day in Perth, Australia, just before Christmas last year. 

“When they’re on the water, they’re thinking about themselves and going about their jobs, as they should,” Andreasen says. “But on shore, it’s always fun to have a family member here. It’s good for Zach.”

It will be especially good as he tries to dethrone a British Olympic hero at the London Games.

“For me, racing against Ben is the most motivating factor that I’ve ever had in my athletic career,” Railey says. “The reason we want to do this is to test ourselves against the best in the world. Clearly, he is the best in the world. I’d like to change that.”

Vicki Michaelis, who covered the past six Olympic Games as USA TODAY’s lead Olympics writer, is the Carmical Distinguished Professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Georgia.

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