Erika Reineke: Pulling back the curtain

Published on September 18th, 2019

Despite its immense significance in the sport of Sailing, there remains significant apathy for Olympic competition within North America. While failing results and unfamiliar equipment contributes, so does the lack of human interest stories.

When we care about the people, we care about their pursuits, but as much as we beg for the athletes to share their experiences, most struggle to offer a view of their journey – the highs and lows, the trainings and the triumphs.

It takes courage and confidence to pull back the curtain, but that’s what Erika Reineke, 2017 US Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and internationally ranked #16 Laser Radial sailor, has done in this update. Read on…

As I was packing for the 2019 Women’s Radial World Championships in Sakaiminato, Japan, I felt prepared and ready to give it my all at what would be first event of the US Olympic Trials. I was confident in my training, strength and conditioning, and mental fitness. I boarded my flight feeling calm and relaxed because I knew I had done everything I could to perform at my best.

Having experience sailing in many World Championships, I knew that this event wasn’t going to be easier than any of the others. It was going to demand the most of my physical and mental abilities just as previous World Championships had. I understood this going into the event and I was willing to accept the challenge.

However, what I wasn’t prepared for was the weather conditions. At 25 years old, sailing nonstop for the last 17 years, it is extremely uncommon that I race in a condition that I haven’t seen before. Sure enough, nine of the eleven races were sailed in a condition that I had very little experience in (random weather patterns).

After trying my hardest to figure out how to sail in this condition yet still falling short of a decent result race after race, my mental toughness was challenged. I took notes every night on what I saw and what had happened that day, trying to figure out if there was some sort of pattern I could connect with but nothing gave my mind clarity.

I tried starting at the favored end so I could have an early lead in the race and try to manage the fleet from there. It didn’t work. I tried starting at the unfavored end thinking that the breeze was oscillating and I would be ahead on the next oscillation. It didn’t work. I tried starting near the closest pressure on the course to position myself near the most wind. It didn’t work.

In what seemed like an event that just wouldn’t yield in tormenting me, I finally let “Jesus take the wheel.” The last race of the event, I started in the middle of the fleet and worked my way carefully up the course. To my surprise, I rounded the windward mark in first.

I knew that the conditions were still unstable and anything could happen in the race so I continued to work my way carefully around the course never taking any risks. I crossed the finished line in 4th and that’s when it hit me…I finally understood the conditions!

This was the best and worst realization of my life. I was relieved that something in my mind clicked but I was completely heartbroken that I didn’t figure this out sooner. In hindsight, my original race strategy approach was to try to get in front of the fleet early in the race and manage the rest from there.

However, in random conditions, it was pure chance that I would get ahead from the start. The proper approach would have been to start near the middle section of the line, reducing leverage/risk early in the race, and adapt to what was happening up the course.

This strategy still might not have gotten me around the windward mark in the top 10 every time but it would have gotten me around the mark in the top 25 with the opportunity to pick off boats throughout the race. In other words, I needed to be okay with not winning the start and instead putting myself in a position where I had the opportunity to win later on. I finished the event in 21st place.

After the World Championships, I boarded the plane home in the opposite manner I boarded it on the way to the event. I was crushed, I felt my dreams were shattered, and my self-confidence was low. Trying to be strong and mentally tough in front of my family, I refused to let me feelings show until one day I broke and everything spilled out of me.

For a few days I thought long and hard about my dream and if it had all gone out the window in one event. To get me out of this funk, I had to remind myself why I starting sailing in the first place and the truth is that I am in love with it. Once I realized that was the answer, I got myself together and set my sights on sailing my heart out at the Olympic Test Event in Enoshima, Japan.

Eight days after the Worlds, I boarded the plane to head back to Japan. It was my turn to show myself that I am better than my performance in Sakaiminato.

Like every Radial regatta, the points were close throughout the Test Event. Having been in the top 10 overall throughout the regatta, it still came down to the last day of racing to decide who would earn their spot in the medal race. Fighting tooth and nail to claw back into the top 20 on the final two races, I held on to a medal race spot.

Going into the medal race, I was too far out to close in on a medal. However, sitting in 8th overall, I had the potential to move up to fifth place. After a ton of waiting on shore for the breeze to fill-in, the Radials final got the okay to head to the race course. Unfortunately, our race was called off at the gate mark because 5 knots had turned into 0 knots and we started drifting backwards with the current.

Though I am sad we didn’t have enough wind to restart the race so I could try to improve my score, I am happy to have come away with an 8th place finish at the Olympic Test Event. As this was the venue for the 2020 Games, it also gave me perspective on where I would place at an Olympic Games if the event were to have taken place this year. Thankfully, I have one more year to train and refine my skills to get me into medal contention.

Four days after the Olympic Test Event concluded, the Enoshima World Cup Event commenced! On the first day of the regatta we had similar conditions to some of the racing at the Test Event while the second day was called off due to typhoon force winds. The rest of the event we had spectacular breeze with 15-20 knots and beautiful rolling waves.

Every time I rounded the windward mark, I had a huge smile plastered to my face because I was so pumped to surf some waves on the downwind. But with all the sailing I had done over the last month and half, I didn’t realized how much my fitness and weight had decreased.

As a result, when those three race days in the strong breeze came beckoning, my mind wanted to keeping grinding and pushing forward but my body was holding me back. It was clear that I had lost my physical edge to the top girls and that’s not something you want. especially being naturally shorter and lighter. Nevertheless, I kept trying to fight through but I just had nothing left in the tank to give.

I finished the Enoshima World Cup in 20th, but rather than being crushed and heartbroken like I was after the Worlds, I actually gave myself some credit. It’s extremely hard to compete in three back-to-back events in such a short amount of time. Not only does your body not have time to recover but your mind never really shuts off.

By no means, am I thrilled or happy that I finished the event in this position but, thinking objectively, I was able to gain more knowledge about the 2020 Olympic Venue and I was able to push my limits.

There is now five months until the 2020 Worlds in Melbourne, Australia (the second US Olympic Trials event). I learned a lot from my experiences this summer and I know they will help me become a better sailor and athlete in the future.

I will use the fall and winter to regain my fitness edge and rebuild my mental toughness. There is a lot of work to be done but I know that by the time the 2020 World Championships come around, I will be ready to fight.

Editor’s note: To help Erika, click here.

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