Sailing sensation sets sights on South America
Megan Grapengeter-Rudnick talks like a 14-year-old girl, sprinkling "likes" and "kind ofs" into her sentences, blushing with a hint of embarrassment and grumbling "Daddy" when her father qualifies and clarifies what she's talking about. Her bright blue eyes twinkle and dance, and she fidgets with her hair from time to time as she describes her passion.
But don't let any of that fool you: Megan is a well-trained athlete and a fierce competitor.
She's been sailing her Optimist -- an 8-foot boat she describes as a "bathtub with sails"-- since she was 8 years old. Last year, she was ranked third fastest girl at three separate regattas and first girl at the U.K. Nationals in Scotland; she has consistently placed at the top of the field when competing against boys and girls over the last few seasons.
"I've been with boats basically my whole life, and then when I got into junior sailing at Noroton Yacht Club, I started to really get a feel for it, and it just kind of flowed," the Darienite said.
In a few weeks' time, the young sailor will be heading to Punta del Este, Uruguay to represent the United States at the Optimist South American Championship. She placed in the top 15 youth sailors during a recent national qualifying competition to earn the honor.
"It's really, really competitive and I've been training really, really hard for it," the 14-year-old athlete said. "It's just such a huge accomplishment to even qualify for it."
This contest will mark the first time she competes in a true international competition. While she has traveled all over the world to race, cruising over waters in Argentina, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Bermuda and other places, all of her previous races have technically been "local" events. No sailors will boast a home-team advantage in the Uruguay championship.
And she's plunging into international waters. She's looking forward to the thrill of the race, and the familiar feeling of the water moving beneath her, she said.
"Personally, I love the wind. It just blows your hair back and it's on your face, and it's so calming," she said. "It just smells great -- unless there are sea lions around, which there were in Argentina.
"But if there are no sea lions, everything just smells so clean and nice. And the water is just kind of like there, and if you need to get cooled, you can just kind of jump in the water. It's nice," she said with a big smile. "And I love the waves, because I'm one of those people where the waves get you kind of calmed and relaxed, and sometimes even tired.
"And I love when it's really windy, and you go really fast, and it's just like this joy of so much adrenaline inside," she said.
While it can sometimes be a "relaxing" experience, she said she is often exhausted by the sport, which requires not only mental concentration and focus, but full-body strength and coordination for the races, which can vary from 40-minute to hour-and-a-half long tests of her will.
"The hardest part is a tie between knowing how to maneuver yourself and endurance, because in long regattas, you get really, really tired really, really quickly, so the best kids are the kids who can be conservative, and not tire themselves out -- and not get sunburned," she said.
She runs 3 miles each day to keep her body in top shape.
"People ask why I have to run that far," she said with a laugh, "But when you have to hike, you're going to need strong legs."
"Hiking" is the term used to describe the action of moving her body as far upwind as possible while she's sailing in an effort to guide the boat.
"Sometimes you surf the wave, the way you would with a surfboard -- you can surf with a sailboat by moving the same way," she said.
"Sailing is everything. It's full body. You're even using your feet to pull the boat toward you. You're sitting, except you're always using your back, your arms, your feet, and then when you're going up toward the wind, and it's really windy, your boat will feel like it wants to capsize. So, you have to prevent that from happening, and that's where your legs come into play," she said.
She capsized her boat earlier this month while racing her Optimist in the 45th annual Semana Internacional Del Yachting, a competition that featured two back-to-back four-day regattas in Argentina -- another "local" event that she traveled thousands of miles to participate in.
"I went from one side and my sail went to the other side, and I changed angles, which is one of the things you have to do when going upwind, and the wind just caught my sail, and just blew it over, and I didn't get to the other side in time. I couldn't hike out in time, and it just went over," she said. "In terms of pain, I didn't feel anything when I hit the water. But I was really upset, because I had been doing really well in the race."
She was able to overcome the obstacle, finishing 10th and 13th in the regattas. She was the fourth American, and the first girl overall.
She's hoping for a similar outcome in Uruguay, and for continued success after she "ages out" of Optimist racing next year. When she's too old for Optimist racing, she plans on moving up to racing a 420, a two-person boat. From there, she wants to move up again to a similar boat, called the 470, which is used in the Olympics -- a competition she hopes to one day tackle.