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At Long Last, An Olympian: Erika Reineke Will Sail The Laser Radial In Paris

by Peggy Shinn

Erika Reineke competes in a womens dinghy race during the Olympic Games Paris 2024 sailing test event on July 13, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Getty Images)

Erika Reineke’s Instagram on February 25 said it all: “15 years a dream.”


The 30-year-old sailor had just qualified for her first U.S. Olympic Team—headed to Paris, or more precisely, Marseille, this summer—by winning the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Miami in the ILCA6 boat class, a singlehanded dinghy known as the Laser Radial and raced by women at the Olympic Games.


“It still doesn’t feel real,” she said by Zoom from Barcelona, where she is training with the women’s America’s Cup.


Reineke has a bright easy smile. But neither the week-long Trials nor the years leading up to it have been, well, smooth sailing. It was her fourth time competing in a U.S. Olympic Trials and only her first time winning. Her story, like many, is one of hard work, perseverance, the value of a good coach, and with each Olympic quadrennial, knowing when to change tacks.

From Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Reineke first started sailing at age 8. Neither of her parents sail, but they belong to the Lauderdale Yacht Club, which has a good youth sailing program. So they signed her up. Sailing in small Optimist boats, Reineke was terrified at first.


“I didn’t like the strong wind, and I thought the ocean was really scary, the breaking waves were really scary,” she said.


The power of peer pressure prevailed. She saw her friends out on the water too and realized that “you’re all in this together.” Over time, her fear dissipated. Besides, her parents would not let her quit until she had given it a fair shake.


From the Optimist, Reineke graduated to the Laser Radial and in 2010, when she was 16, she won a bronze medal at the International Sailing Federation’s Youth World Championships. Ten days later, she won the 2010 ILCA (Laser Radial) Youth World Championships.


So how did she go from a scared newbie to a world champion in just a few years?


Again, credit her friends. They were becoming seasoned sailors and Reineke was determined not to be left behind.


“I did some extra hours of private coaching, got fitter, and was asking more questions,” she explained. “That’s really what jump started it.”

Erika Reineke competes in a women's dinghy race during an Olympic Games Paris 2024 sailing test event on July 13, 2023 in Marseille, France (Photo by Getty Images)

Reineke was still in high school when the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials rolled around. By that time, she was a three-time ILCA youth world champion, and at the 2012 worlds, she had finished eighth in the women’s field. She knew her chances of qualifying for the London Games were low. But she wanted trials experience and “to see what the Olympic stuff was all about.”


“I had showed prowess in youth sailing, but I hadn’t really had that much experience competing on the women’s stage,” said Reineke. “So that quad, I was just getting a feel for what something like this would be like.”

Reineke graduated from high school in 2012 and went to Boston College—as much for the school’s academics as its renowned sailing program. At BC, she won the women’s collegiate singlehanded national championships four times.


After junior year, she took the year off, with the goal of qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team sailing in Rio. But the transition to Olympic sailing from the college format was a challenge. Boats are different and college races are short, with multiple races in one day. Olympic sailing involves longer (hour-long) races, with sailors competing two or three times each day. No surprise, Reineke missed qualifying.


She returned to BC, graduating in spring 2017 with a B.S. degree in environmental geosciences.

With college degree in hand, Reineke could now focus full time on qualifying for an Olympic Games. She put her head down and set her sails for Tokyo in 2020.


While every Olympian works hard to make the team, there is a fine line. Without school to keep her life balanced and with the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down the world, Reineke overtrained both in the gym and on the water. She was sailing about 17 days per month (more than she does now).


“It made improving in the gym really hard and improving in sailing really hard,” she explained. “I was always hitting a plateau. Then once I recovered, I’d hit the plateau again.”


“I had put my head down and tried as hard as I could,” she added, “and it actually backfired.”

Reineke was heartbroken to not make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team. She had given it everything—too much, in fact—and was not sure what to do next. She spent summer 2021 with her parents in Colorado, about as far from the ocean as one can get in North America.

Erika Reineke competes in a women's dinghy during the Olympic Games Paris 2024 sailing test event on July 13, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Getty Images)

When she returned to the water, it was in another Olympic boat class. She joined Lucy Wilmot—who had just graduated from Harvard—in a 49er FX, a two-person high-performance skiff.


Reineke calls it “a very pivotal moment” in her Olympic sailing career. Sharing the helm with a teammate in a different boat class gave her a new perspective on the sport. Over the course of three Olympic cycles, Reineke had slid into a mentality of “this is hard work.” Wilmot reminded her that sailing, and striving for an Olympic team, is exciting.


“Being with someone else and seeing how they operate and how they see achieving a gold medal, and also just her newness to the sport, was very refreshing,” said Reineke. “Sailing with [Lucy] was the best time of my life, and it really showed me how fun sailing was again.”


“It was crazy how much those two years in the 49er did and sailing with my partner did,” she added.


But Reineke’s strength is in the singlehanded Laser Radial, and in spring 2022, Erik Bower convinced Reineke to compete in the ILCA (Laser Radial) world championships that year (the championships had been moved from China to Texas, so it would be easier to reach). Bower had had Olympic aspirations of his own but after serving as a “bench warmer” for the 2016 Rio Games, became a coach.


With only four weeks of practice after two years out of the Laser Radial, Reineke placed tenth and was the top American.


After worlds, Bower convinced Reineke to adopt a new strength and conditioning program, which helped her put on 10 pounds of muscle and become an all-around competitor in all wind and water conditions.


He also helped Reineke with decision-making in the boat. Sailing is a sport of variables, and Bower has helped Reineke weigh her options in any given race, then pick courses of action depending on how the variables play out on the water.


“This allows her to be more focused and more unreactive to some of the noise that can occur in a race,” explained Bower. “It allows her to spend more time sailing her own boat as fast as possible.”


In the months leading up to the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials, Reineke won gold at the 2023 Pan Am Games. Then she won the week-long trials event in February 2024 after a close battle with Charlotte Rose. After the final race, she hugged everyone, including her parents and sister who had come to Miami to watch, and Bower.


“He’s why I’m here,” said Reineke of Bower.

Reineke competed in the 2024 Olympic test event last summer (finishing tenth in her first regatta after breaking her ankle in February 2023). Of the Marseille venue and sailing in the Mediterranean, she said it can have everything: big waves and really strong wind, or chop and also really strong wind, or light air or really shifty wind.”


“That's what makes like this Olympics the most exciting,” she said. “The real winner of the Olympics and the medalists will be the all-around the best sailors.”


As for her thoughts on making her first Olympic team, Reineke summed it up on Instagram:


“I’m 30 now and I started pursuing this path when I was 15—it’s been a long road. I’ve been tested every Games cycle, and to finally succeed feels amazing. There’s a lot of work to be done for Paris and I’m honored to represent the USA on the Olympic stage.”

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