10 questions with Zach Railey

Zach Railey earned silver in the Finn four years ago in China.  Railey has qualified for the 2012 Olympic team, as has his sister Paige, and he is gunning for gold but three-time Olympic Finn champion Ben Ainslie will stand in his way.

How would you compare qualifying for your second Olympic team to campaigning for the 2008 Games? I agree that the second time back is harder. If I compare it to the first time around in 2008, there wasn’t as much attention on me personally. There’s a lot of attention that’s come from my success at the Games in 2008. I think I’ve had to learn to deal with that and that’s been a development for me over the last few years. But I also think it is exciting to know that I have the ability to perform at the Olympics. I’ve already been there and done that so I think it is a bit of a competitive advantage to know that I’ve been there, I’ve done it before, I know what it takes. I’m very confident in what we are doing this time around.

How do you ensure you rise to your medal-winning standards from four years ago this time? I’m a very big believer in myself and Kenneth, my coach, in changing things because if you don’t change stuff you don’t get better. If you just stay with what you know and what you know is working at the time, other people will figure things out that you haven’t figured out or gotten better at. And then they pass you and then you start getting beat. So one of the big things that I do and work with our coaches, our nutritionists, our trainers, is we try different things and we purposely negatively affect our results by doing that. And we know that. But we know that in the process of trying to find a way to go faster downwind or have a better start or have a better technique upwind, we will make ourselves better in the future. So I’m okay with taking a step or two back if I can take three or four steps forward at an event like a World Championships or at an Olympic Games.

What have you learned from racing against Ben Ainslie, three-time Olympic Finn champion? I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from Ben and racing against him is just his deep down desire to want to win and to want to reach his goals. He will set his mind to something and he won’t let anything get in the way. I know that he is an incredibly fierce competitor. Someone who, on the racecourse, is someone that you have to be at your very best to beat. I love racing against guys like that and I love the challenge of going up against somebody like Ben. A lot of people will be scared and intimidated by it but I’m actually very motivated by it.

You were neck-and-neck with Ainslie for several races in China. Yes, I was neck and neck with him when we were in China for the first three or four days of that event. I think realistically when I look back on it, I wasn’t ready to beat Ben in China. I knew that going in. I knew what my goals were. I was ranked outside the top 10 in the world, was new in the class, had set a goal to be on the podium. I achieved that goal. But this time around our goals are a little bit different.

Have you spent time helping some of the younger U.S. Finn sailors? Yes, that’s one of the great things with the US Sailing Team Alphagraphics is that we have been able to start the Development Team. That’s been something that all of us have worked very hard on because we know that I’m not going to be able to sail the Finn forever. Paige isn’t going to be able to sail the Radial forever. We want to know that in 2016, 2020, 2024, that the U.S. Sailing Team Alphagraphics still has     sailors and athletes that can go in and win medals at the Olympic Games. I don’t want to walk away from this and say our 2008 and 2012 team was the best we ever had. I want to say that the 2008 and 2012 team was when the U.S. Sailing Team Alphagraphics changed and when they started basically breeding excellence and making sure that we’re contenders in all the Olympic classes when we go to the Olympic Games.

Have you talked to previous great Finn sailors? I have talked to a lot of past Finn sailors, past Olympians. I think that was one of the things that helped me a lot at the 2008 Olympics. The biggest piece of advice that they all gave me was to enjoy the experience. Going to the Olympic Games is something that you work your entire life for, not only as an individual but everyone that has been there to help you get to that point. I think a lot of people forget to kind of celebrate the fact that you’ve been to the Olympics and enjoy the experience. I think in getting that advice from people that have been there before really helped me take in the moment of being at the Olympic Games and not allowing the nervousness and not allowing the attention and everything that comes with being at the Olympics affect my ability to go out and perform.

The U.S. has won several silver medals in the Finn.  Are you going to be the one who gets the gold? That’s the goal. The goal is to make sure that if I’m prepared enough and I understand the competition that I’m up against and I know that I have to sail at my very best at the Olympic Games this year. I have to go in with the mindset that if I don’t sail to the best of my ability, then my results are going to be a silver because that’s how good I’m going to have to be to be able to beat Ben.

You never won a single race in China but you had a great average.  Is that the key to earning a medal? Our goal was to go in 2008 and win a medal. If you think about it, if you go into the Olympic Games and say if I just finish seventh in every race I’m going to have a chance to achieve that goal. That’s what we went into the Olympics thinking. We weren’t worried about the color. Would I have loved for it to have been a Gold medal? Absolutely. I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t say that. But I was realistic with the goals that we had but also knew that I was trying to achieve a very lofty goal at the same time in being on the podium. So that’s what we went in with the mindset. It’s going to be the same mindset this time around. If there’s a boat in front of me, I’m going to figure out how to pass it because every point on the racecourse is going to count.

How do you feel about your sister, Paige, also being on the Olympic team this time? That’s the most exciting part about this whole process and this whole experience is that the two of us get to go together. I don’t think people realize how disappointing last time around was for the two of us. We’ve had a dream of wanting to go to the Olympic Games together since we were 12 or 13 years old. That dream was crushed last time around. So I had to regroup. She had to regroup and refocus on 2012 but I had to refocus on 2008. She helped me in that process. I know how hard it was for her to support me through that. It’s very sweet that we’re together on this team and we’ve come back really strong both as individuals but we look at each other as a team.  I think we’ve come back stronger this time around.

At the Olympics there is only one boat per country, whereas the World Championships can have several sailors per country.  Will the Olympics be easier for that reason? A lot of people say it is harder to win a world championship than it is to win a gold medal. I kind of disagree with that a little bit because I think maybe if you look at it competitive wise, there may be more higher level competitors from one country at the world championships but at the Olympic Games, whoever is there for that country is an incredibly good athlete and an incredibly good sailor. But then the pressures of having to perform at the Olympic Games with all the attention that comes from the Olympic Games, representing your country.  Four years of your life, or eight years of your life coming down to one week and having to make it happen that week.  That’s a very, very unique situation. So for me I think performing at the Olympic Games would be much harder than performing at the world championships. That’s why it’s the Olympics. That’s why it is so special is just because of that.

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