Paige Railey isn’t the only sailor in her family. She’s not even the only Olympian. Brother Zach, who got his start in the sport a few years ahead, is a 2008 silver medalist in the heavyweight dinghy. And then, in London, the two got to walk together at the Opening Ceremony, while the rest of the family cheered them on.
This year, though, Paige is the only Railey competing in Rio. Today, she’s racing in the laser radial — a small (and fast) one-person boat that requires her to do everything herself—competition in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay.
The 29-year-old, who took second in the world championship event earlier this year, has been named sailor of the year in the past. Her family is so close that Zach and Paige, along with Paige’s twin sister, own a high water company out of their Florida home base. And when she’s not selling sandbags or buckets for sailing, training for the Olympics, or raising money, Paige competes in Ironman triathlon just for the fun of it — even when it means having to recover from a devastating bike crash.
Paste caught up with Railey between training trips to Rio.
How does someone even get into sailing in first place?
My dentist recommended to my parents to do a ‘learn to sail’ program, a summer camp, when my brother was eight, and Zach fell in love with it. I was five years old at the time and I have a twin sister too, so we had to wait three years to join the program.
How do you go from there, from a summer camp, to being really competitive? Do you have to buy your own boat as an eight-year-old?
No, no, the club had boats for us, which was great. Then we used hand-me-down stuff for a long time.
There really is a path set out in front of kids, so they start in the same boat and they have alternatives, they can do the solo or with another person, when they get too big or too old for the beginner boat.
And you decided you wanted to do the sailing alone?
Yeah, I decided to do the sailing alone thing. I tried it with my twin sister and it didn’t work out. I just enjoyed being in the boat all by myself, making decisions. I was eight years old, all by myself, in a boat alone, that’s pretty crazy. I really enjoyed that kind of freedom.
It sounds really hard to learn and there’s a lot of equipment. What’s the hardest part?
Sailing’s really one of those sports that if you want to be one of the best in the world you have to start at a young age, because you develop a type of an instinct. It’s like gymnastics; I could never join gymnastics at my age now and become one of the best in the world. Your body needs to develop for it. Your mind really needs to learn how to read wind and current. When I’m sailing there are a lot of things that come natural to me.
You could take me out onto open water and I can read patterns on the water, see the way that wind is flowing. I can read the water; I can read waves. There’s a natural instinct inside of me that’s really like a sixth sense that comes from doing it for so long.
There’s this perception that sailing’s not really a sport. What is your response when people say that to you?
Well, it’s funny, because we get “sailing’s not a sport.” And then we also, I’m a female, and you know how people are with females in sports too. So it’s like a double whammy.
Actually, I heard a statistic in the last Games that sailing was the #2 hardest sport behind equestrian. The best way I describe sailing, because it’s such a long event, six days long and at the Olympics it’s actually eight days: It’s like doing a triathlon while power-lifting and playing chess at the same time.
It’s really an integration of all these different sports. I’m going out on the water for five hours at a time. Each one of my races can be an hour to an hour-fifteen, and I’m doing that over a six day period. So I’m having a steady endurance heart rate, but at times I really have to put a lot of power into my boat. And then, all the while I’m thinking about wind, boats, tactics, strategy, how am I going to get around the course. And that’s just one day of sailing. Then I have to go to sleep, wake up, and do it again the next day.
Physically, there are times when my body is so exhausted it hurts to sleep at night. My temperature’s high, my legs are hurting. It’s hard even to get to bed.
People usually have to see videos or photos to understand. Because a lot of people misinterpret it with yachting. I don’t yacht. I’m not a yachter at all. I’m a sailor.
What is the training like for that? Do you sail every single day?
I do two sessions guaranteed a day, which would be one gym session and a sailing session or a cardio session and a sailing session. More towards the beginning of the quad I was doing three sessions a day, but now we’ve been slowing down more and spending more time on the water. I can range between training three hours up to eight hours a day. And that doesn’t include sitting and looking at video, studying technique, and everything. So I can have easily a 12- to 14-hour day, like a normal person would during a workweek.
Yet, I can’t imagine you’re making a ton of money doing that.
Oh no, we’re definitely not making tons of money. It’s very cutthroat in the athlete world. Your results dictate the amount of money you receive. But it’s also that same if you were a salesperson based off strict commission. Underperformance means you don’t get your money.
?Each year I go through a qualification system to determine my funding for the next year. Then throughout the whole year they have criteria that I must meet, and if I’m not meeting the criteria then technically I’m not performing my job. it’s cutthroat, but it’s also like in the working world.
I worked in the business world after 2012, and athletics are very similar. Everything was based off numbers, performances, your results. If you’re not getting the results or you’re not getting the numbers in the company, then you won’t be receiving the benefits.
The thing that’s difficult with sailing is it’s a very expensive sport. So outside of funding that you receive from the US Olympic Committee, you also have to do sponsors and fundraisers. These things are actually really good at teaching real world skills. Sports and business are very interrelated.
I actually am a business owner with my twin sister and brother. We own the patent for a bucket that has the handle underneath. We sell sandless sandbags, and we sell insurance as well. We all work in sales, but when you first start a company all the revenue you make is put back in the company. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but my brother being an Olympian and my sister being a business person, it all works quite well.
So that’s your plan for after all this sailing?
For sure. I believe in having a diverse outlook on things, or having diversity in one’s life. Rather than just investing fully in one avenue, you should have a variety of avenues.
You also got in a bike accident while you were training for a triathlon. Was that just a one-off thing or do you do that regularly too?
I love triathlons. In 2013, I did an Ironman for fun. And I made a really nice group of friends, so I was out on a ride with some of my friends and I had a bike accident and landed on my face. I had a bunch of injuries from that.
How long did it take to come back from that?
The doctors had written me off for about six months, but I put myself back in the boat after six weeks. But I strapped a pink helmet on and wore a face mask to cover up my scars.
But really I had issues for 10 months or so after. It was one hell of a road to get back. It took me over a year to get back on the podium worldwide because of all the issues physically and coming back from an accident is extremely tough mentally. It was a long road for me, very difficult, but a road I’ve learned so many things on that I can apply to the rest of my life.
Are there sailing accidents like there are cycling accidents?
Oh yeah. You can get hit in the head with the metal piece that’s close down to the ground. People get launched out of the boat. They run into the mast. People drown. You get stuck under the sail.
There are definitely accidents that happen. It’s not as common as a biking race, but they do happen.
You were just down in Brazil training. There’s been a lot of talk about the water quality. Are you concerned about it? Have you gotten sick?
This is what I tell everybody: whenever anyone travels anywhere in the world, people always say, “Don’t drink the water.” I am a sailor and I am fully immersed in water, so it doesn’t matter if I go to England, to Brazil, to China. Doesn’t matter. I am encountering new bacteria all the time. So going to Brazil, it doesn’t phase me.
I really don’t think the water is that bad. Compared to 2007, when I was there for the Pan-Am Games, to now, the water is great.
The most sick I’ve ever been was actually in a first-world country. Honestly, it’s a lot of hype. The photos the media is putting out there of the garbage in the water, they have to be going and searching for that, upriver. That’s not what we’re sailing in.
Of course, we’ve been told to take precautions, like anywhere you travel to, use bug spray, get your vaccines, don’t put lines in your mouth when you’re sailing. I, honestly, don’t care. You could tell me to take a cup of water from Guanabara Bay and I’d drink it in front of the media.