At the Washington Sailing Marina — home of the Georgetown sailing team’s 27 boats and site of Georgetown’s practices — every Thursday is race day for the Hoyas. The opponents? Each other.
For a team which annually contends for the national title and has produced a remarkable four of the past six College Sailors of the Year, the weekly tradition pits many of the most talented sailors in the country head to head on a regular basis. Boats of two are constantly in competition with each other for the two Georgetown slots at top weekend regattas, when in reality six or seven of the Blue and Gray boats have the talent to compete in these prime-time races.
“We want to make our practices as difficult as possible, so that when you go to a regatta you realize that this isn’t that hard — we go harder every Thursday at practice,” Head Coach Mike Callahan said. “When you have the best coed sailors and the best women sailors in the country on your team and you compete against them every day, you can’t help but get better.”
The approach is certainly working. The Blue and Gray graduated three All-Americans after finishing fourth in last spring’s national championships, including college sailor of the year Charlie Buckingham. Yet Georgetown returns to the open water this fall with a No. 2 preseason ranking. The sailing program is lauded by fellow varsity athletes and coaches at Georgetown, but despite unwavering success throughout the years, the Hoyas consistently coast beneath the radar of the majority of the student body.
“It’s funny. … People ask me what sport I do and I say sailing, so people say ‘Oh, crew! I see those people out on the water.’ No, no, no, no. We have a sail. We do sailing. So yes, sailing is kind of a foreign sport to a lot of people,” three-time All-American senior Sydney Bolger said. “We don’t really mind being under the radar, it’s nice to have recognition when recognition is due, but we kind of do our own thing. We’re successful, and it works out well for us,” she said.
The humble Blue and Gray may not demand the attention of their peers, but they do deserve it.
“I don’t care about the limelight and all the attention,” said junior Chris Barnard, who spent the summer competing internationally in Olympic circuits. “We work just as hard as any other team in the weight room and just as hard as any other team in the classroom and in competition, and it shows that we work hard enough to get eight national championships.”
But an unparalleled record of success is not the only factor making sailing a distinguished athletic program at Georgetown. Unlike most of the university’s varsity teams, the Hoyas are a coed amalgam of competitors with all levels of experience, natural talent, and background.
“We have kids on our team at the top level that were recruited, that sailed in high school, that will go to the Olympics and to the world university games this summer, but we also have people on our team that have never sailed before,” Callahan said.
At the conclusion of each practice, the Blue and Gray huddle together by the banks of the Potomac River and break with two words that define the philosophy of the program: “as one.” No matter one’s rank within the team, the philosophy holds that each individual contributes to the group’s success and to the constant improvement of the unit.
“The whole team is all part of the team’s success, on and off the water. Even if only the top few skippers and top members of the team are producing the results, it’s really boat one through boat 20 pushing each boat in front of them to get better and better,” Barnard said. “The ‘as one’ philosophy brings us all together. It’s a constant reminder that we are one big group and one big family.”
“To a certain point there is definitely some inter-team rivalry, but it’s healthy competition,” Bolger said. “We understand that as long as everyone is getting better, our team as a whole is going to compete against other schools at a higher level.”
Callahan has fostered a tradition in which the best sailors pass on their skills to the next generation, while inexperienced team members all find ways to contribute.
“If you had a Charlie Buckingham, who was winning races, he would come back and tell you exactly what he did, exactly how he made his boat go faster than you, and in that way he’d make everybody else a little faster, a little better,” Callahan said. “And [having] those people that have maybe never been in the boat before, when they get better and when they make the team better … you see the joy of sailing in those new kids.”
In addition to winning, teamwork and cohesion, another factor plays an important role in the culture of Hoya sailing — fun.
“The goal is always to win a national championship, and that puts a lot of pressure on you … but I want them to look at their watches at 3:15 when they’re ending class, and get excited about going to practice — excited to sail — and if we can do that and have fun at practice, then the team will [succeed],” Callahan said.
While their sport may not lend itself to large crowds of spectators packing the riverbanks, the Blue and Gray family, so to speak, provides a fine example of camaraderie and team unity translating into great success. Whether or not the student body awards this team with the accolades and praise it deserves, one thing is for certain: The Georgetown sailing team will continue to grow, excel and improve throughout the 2011-2012 campaign. And they will do it “as one.”