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Fingernails for Pitons

By Kimball Livingston

Paige Railey’s unique sailing career has been an inspiration to many and, to her, at times, a trial. Through seventeen years of StFYC membership, she has never failed to make us proud to know her, proud to claim her. This piece, written by an admirer and reprinted by permission of Sailing World Magazine, explores the frontiers of ambition and what it means to live on thin air at the high end of competition.

Paige Railey has survived failure. She’s even survived success. But she might not accept those words. Defeats? Oh yeah. Wins? Big wins. The latest chapter in her sailing career strikes a different note, a new direction (almost). And she has a message that resonates. To appreciate it, however, take a deeper dive into her life since she joined the US Sailing Team 19 years ago, hitting the highest highs and lowest lows, achieving everything there is to achieve in a Laser Radial except an Olympic medal. Think about it. She was a teenage phenomenon, a world champion, World Sailor of the Year, Rolex Yachtswoman of the year. Twice she went to the Games. Twice she came away empty handed. And then—

Setting her hopes for a third medal shot on the 2020 US Trials, posting a selfie on social media showing herself in a hospital bed, Railey had this to say: “Olympian or sick? Who says you can’t be both? I have an immune system that struggles to fight infection (deficiency). It attacks my vascular system (autoimmune). I’m weak. I can’t do one pullup or even squat my body weight. My lungs have been through hell. I’m up for a CT scan and a bronchoscopy, and I have only months to get it together for the next Olympic Trials Event. To hell with being secretive about my health.”

If that was the only time Railey had been down, this wouldn’t be a story. Refusing to give in has been her story, over and again. She has been an inspiration, especially to the young. Once upon a time, Railey was speaking to a group of teenage sailors when Coach Brent suggested that maybe the kids had questions: “How about you, Zoe? What would you like to ask Paige?”


“Surely you have something on your mind.”

Awkward silence.

Asked, later, what that was about, Zoe replied:

“I was too awestruck.”

Growing up in Clearwater, Florida, Railey’s early sailing was overshadowed by big brother Zach. Her first goals were “to have my own name and beat the boys.” That much was settled when she won the Laser Radial Youth Worlds at 16, but Railey doesn’t recall a lightbulb Olympic dream moment. She says, “I just saw the Olympics as the logical extension of a love of sailboat racing.”

As other victories came along—she won the first Grade 1 event she ever sailed, the 2006 Radial Worlds—she says she stayed grounded and, “never allowed myself to get carried away. I believed in a stepping-stone career. I always saw room for improvement, and you have to keep up with changes as new people come in.”

It would be fair to say that in 2006, Railey came in with a bang. It would also be fair to say that in 2008 it was haunting to lose the Olympic Trials, barely, to gold medalist-to-be Anna Tunnicliffe (Tobias). That leads to a phrase that pops up more than once whenever Railey thinks back over her 34 years, “unfinished business.”

Then it was on to the United Kingdom in 2012 as the winner of the US Trials, but 2012 became the first Olympiad since 1936 in which no American sailor won a medal. Railey decided that was, “Like going through a toll booth.”

Her future beckoned. Then came the bike wreck, August 24, 2014:  a fractured spine; teeth knocked out; 50 stitches. For those strong of stomach, I’ll briefly note that Railey had tendons sticking out when the medics arrived. Would anyone have blamed her had she packed it in for a career in backyard badminton? She remembers too well, “I went a long time without being able to hold a coffee cup.” In rehab, Railey scaled her personal mountain, using fingernails for pitons.

Photo by Allison Chenard / US Sailing Team

Back in the boat, much later, relearning how to use her body, she missed winning the 2016 Worlds by one point but again won the Trials and arrived in Rio, she believed, “at a peak.”

Then, out of nowhere, “The day before measurement I was laid up in bed in the fetal position, running a fever, coughing up ugly stuff. I went into my second Olympics dog-sick. I tried my hardest, but it didn’t work.”

A virus was blamed. Brother Zach had come away from the 2008 Games with a silver medal. Paige came away in 2016 with a need to curl up on her parents’ sofa and let time go by. (Time went by.)

Glossing over details lest this read like the Book of Job, Railey spent a hellish 2017 in and out of hospitals: “We just didn’t know what was going on.”

But, jumping ahead to 2018, and feeling good again, she says, “My unfinished business bothered me, so I committed to another campaign. A month later I could not get out of bed.”

Speaking of bother. But Railey at last connected with the small network of specialists who could diagnose her condition and begin treating her with heavy drugs that “felt like death every morning.” More time went by, and when she ventured out again for the first time, “It was blowing 30 knots. I was a liability. I sailed in.”

Moving to 2018, strong enough now to pull “I think eleventh” at World Cup Miami, she was “slowly rebuilding my body. I was getting podium finishes. I thought things were looking up. Then my lungs started hurting. I pushed through and placed second in 2019 at World Cup Miami, with more podium events after that. I was thinking, this is where I need to be.”

Then good regattas began to fall apart. Her body would give out in the late races. “I had trouble breathing, going upwind,” she says. “I’d go delirious.”

She attempted to race the test event in Japan but, losing weight, struggling to breathe and weakening, Railey left Japan early and went to a specialist in New York. “We found out how far the disease had progressed. This is where things got really difficult.”

She says that last with no show of irony. And this is where we came in, with our sailor flat down in a hospital bed looking at a five-month runway to a showdown. Yes, she eventually made it out of the hospital, still weak. Yes, she sailed the Trials knowing it would take “mind over body.” Yes, she “redlined,” mind over body. And she won. “I had no idea how I’d cope with the Games,” she says. “Then Covid hit. That bought time, but I kept running into walls [insert paragraphs from the Book of Job] and I settled for daily, small goals.”

Railey returned to Japan in 2021, healthy enough, she says, and ready enough for the delayed Olympics but not ready for the downdraft-cascade-disaster that was barrel rolling her way. Once again, “I felt great, excited to perform. Then, every decision I made was wrong. Just wrong. Everyone knows that in any sailing career you’re going to have that event, but please, not at the Olympics, please not at my third Olympics. I wish I could say it was because I was stressed out, nervous, but it was none of that.”

In three Olympiads, one of the greatest sailors of her generation had finishes of 8, 10 and 37.  It happened. She will never forget that last “horrific result. But look at what I did to be there at all.”

This writing was sparked by a social media post, here edited and condensed: “I packed my boat and turned my back. I was so numb and crushed from Tokyo 2020 that I didn’t have the heart to do anything sport related. This past weekend, I sailed again, and it wasn’t about results. It was about reconnecting to the love I have always felt for sailing. The second day of racing hit me like a ton of bricks and, finally, I began processing what happened over the last Olympic Cycle. Let me tell you, it hurts so incredibly much.

“I’ve seen unachieved dreams break people to the point that they never return to the thing they once loved most and, honestly, I’ve been on the brink. Sailing again was my rescue. To all those athletes who are in this place, who might walk away, I say don’t. We each loved our sport long before we set out to take over the world. If we come home broken, it’s important to remember why we started. We fought for our dreams. Today I’m fighting for a love I’ve had since I was eight years old. Sailing is not just a sport. It’s part of me.”

As 2022 ran its course, she declared she is “not retired” from Olympic sailing.

In 2023 she showed up racing sail #214458, apologizing for her hiking form.

Zoe, do you have any questions for Paige?


Michelle SladeFingernails for Pitons