Remembering Our 2004 Olympic Trials Win

The memories just won’t fade. It’s been 10 years and 47 days since we won the 2004 Yngling Olympic Trials and earned the right to represent the U.S. at the 2004 Games in Athens. And in some ways it still seems like yesterday.

Team Atkins wins Olympic Trials 2004

The photos make it obvious that we were all 10 years younger. But the details shine on into their second decade, polished only by my smile.

It seems impossible now that we all left our jobs and lives behind to move to Miami to train, but it was just one of many choices we all made to put this crazy dream at the top of our life lists. Liz Filter, Nancy Haberland and I were all equally committed to “Going all the way, baby” (as Liz put it, way back in 2002). Winning the Trials was not the ultimate goal, but it was a necessary and huge hurdle on the way to becoming an Olympian.

I wrote a short blog for about my favorite memory of all from a decade ago (read Throwback Thursday: Our Olympic Trials Win) There were so many great moments, it was hard to pick… but this one was a watershed for sure. Back when we were Team Atkins, before we had to pull all the logos off the boat for the Olympics, we peaked at the right time… and beat out a bunch of really good teams for the ultimate prize, an Olympic berth. No wonder the memories are still so shiny.


Eight Bells: Bob “Buddha” Billingham

It seems we are losing members of the sailing family left and right these days: Hugh Elliot. Hans Fogh. Hobie Alter. Steve Black. My own sailing mentor, Bob Bigelow.

And even among such illustrious company, Bob “Buddha” Billingham still stands out.Bob Billingham with his hands and shirt dirty from work

Bob was the most “get it done” guy I’ve ever met. (And for those of you who know my husband, that’s saying a lot.) By the time I joined Bob on the Olympic Sailing Committee in 2005, we were both past our Olympic sell-by dates. But even two decades after he’d won a silver medal (Korea 1988, in the Soling with John Kostecki and Will Baylis), Bob still brought an Olympian’s mentality to everything he did. There was no obstacle too large to overcome—assuming the end goal was worth it.

I’m sure there were other end goals in Bob’s life, including work and family and the America’s Cup. But because Bob never talked about his successes, and actively discouraged anyone else from talking about them either, the only place I saw his impact was in person, on the Olympic Sailing Committee. He got what was different about the world of Olympic sailing in the 21st century—and what was still very much the same. We all like to talk about “back in the day,” but Bob’s stories had a point that was pertinent to the challenges facing today’s athlete.

He was always cutting through the distracting details and bringing us back to our real mission: giving Olympic hopefuls what they need to succeed on the world stage. And he never wanted credit for any of this; he just wanted to know that he’d helped remove a few of the many impediments to success for those trying to win an Olympic sailing medal. He was never afraid to take on the big problems, and he could make the leap from tiny detail to a short, pithy sentence stating “why this is important” in a heartbeat—an invaluable skill on a committee.

The best concrete (sic) example of this was “The Shed”, a building just outside the gates of the 2012 Olympic Sailing venue in Weymouth, England, that Bob helped to secure for US athletes in July of 2008—a few months ahead of the predictable skyrocket in property values, while most countries were still focusing on supporting their athletes in Qingdao, China. US sailors had a private space a few steps from the Olympic venue where they could work out, unwind, and just be themselves—a complete novelty within the Olympic pressure-cooker.

My favorite story about Bob dates back to spring 2012, when most of our team had been selected and all eyes were firmly focused on those Games in England. To open what we thought would be a routine meeting, the OSC Chair, Dean Brenner, shocked us all with an announcement: we’d just had a sudden and completely unexpected reduction in our funding for the upcoming Games. While the rest of us around the table were still trying to digest the details, Bob with his characteristic smile said, “That sounds like a great opportunity.” And within minutes, we were on our way to planning the next step—which turned out to be even better than our original plans.

We will miss you, Buddha. You were a great visionary, and also a great friend—and a ton of fun to hang out with. Watch out, Hugh and Hans and Hobie and Steve and Bobby… Those regattas in the sky are about to become a lot better managed.

Tired of Email? Try Pid-Me

In a surprising announcement, Google said today they were rolling out a new message service, Pid-Me.

“We simply got tired of having to respond to everyone so quickly—instantly,” Sergei Brin explained. “There’s no time anymore for contemplation or making wise decisions. So we’re bringing back the oldest form of message delivery and giving it a modern twist.”Pid-Me carrier pidgeon messaging system april 1

To send a Pid-Me, simply log into your Google account and choose the appropriate picon. 36 minutes later, a personalized avian carrier will land on your desktop and chirp a reminder. “Hello! Did you Pid-me?” Type in your message (assuming you still remember it) and the delivery address. The window is formatted like a Gmail window, though it fills the entire screen by default in order to reduce distractions.

When you’ve finished with your composition, click the bird’s stopwatch, and an accurate delivery will be made 24 minutes later—no matter where in the world your recipient is currently hiding.

You can also request a custom delivery time, as long as it’s more than 24 minutes. Up to ten messages can be saved for later delivery, up to ten years in advance. That makes Pid-Me a convenient option for birthdays and anniversaries you might otherwise forget.

“We hope this will encourage people to read their messages through at least twice before sending,” Brin said. “You can also ask your Pid for punctuation and spelling advice.”

For an additional fee, customers will have access to Pid-Psych. After reading your message, your pidgeon will then ask appropriate questions, including but not limited to: “Have you slept on this? Should you even have this person in your contacts?” “Did you really mean to swear so many times?” “Have you considered anger management?” And, of course, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Apple is rumored to be coming out with a Pid-Me plugin called the “i-Pid” that will allow your Pid to “learn” special quirks about your spelling and punctuation. The launch date is not certain, but it will follow closely on the same service actually working on the iPhone.

Customers are encouraged to comment about the service on the new Pid-Me page of the Google website, which hopefully will be live by next April Fool’s Day.



Time Capsule of Words: Yesteryear’s Crossword Puzzles

I’m a devoted Sunday New York Times crossword puzzler. So devoted, in fact, that I have a Crossword subscription to the Times. And last week I discovered a way to go back in time through words: the archives.

NYT Crossword march 14 2004

I figured I’d never remember the March 14, 2004 puzzle, and I was right—even though I’m sure I did my best to complete it on the day. But it felt different, looking back on the clues a decade later: the words we use have changed. Back before the financial meltdown, before “Madoff” was a modern name for “Ponzi”, back when phones were called “cell” phones… as the world moved on, so has our use of language. And since the best crossword puzzle clues are nuggets of language based on current dialogue, it’s easy to see the changes by stepping back only a few years.

Of course there are some throwbacks to Shakespeare, Caesar, and even Carole King. (Three letters, “____ Too Late”) But the best wordplay takes place in the language of today. As great crossword puzzle clue writers tighten and refine their word combinations into a kind of haiku, they tease out answers and associations from a common pool that we puzzlers didn’t even know we had stored away in our brains.

That’s the joy of language. And if it were more static, much of that joy would be lost.

My paper copy of the New York Times from March 14, 2004 has long since been recycled or reused to catch paint drips. And even if I had kept it, I fill out the crossword in pen… so the answers would still be recorded. But now that I’ve discovered the archives, every Sunday is a clean slate again. So if you happen to know an 8 letter word for “#1 Danny & the Juniors hit”, let me know.

My Kingdom for an Overnight Kit

This starts out as a rant, but there is a moral… so please bear with me.

Last week, I left Providence Sunday afternoon to fly to Seattle. Before I’d even arrived at the airport, I learned that the first flight to Detroit would be delayed enough that I would likely miss my connection—in spite of perfectly clear weather. (Turns out it was a mechanical issue.) At the ticket counter, after talking through various alternate plans, I decided to go on to Detroit, knowing I would probably get stuck there overnight. But when I pulled my bag off the scale to grab pajamas, toothbrush, and other key items out of it, the customer service agent waved me off.

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You’ll be able to get your bag in Detroit.”

“And,” he added with a wink, “I’ve upgraded you to first class for tomorrow’s flight to Seattle.”

(One of those statements turned out to be true.)

An hour later, still in Providence, I was told by the gate agent that I would definitely miss my connection. He saw I’d already been scheduled on the morning flight, then said, “When you get to Detroit, you can claim your bag. What color is it?” So I got on the first flight, which departed almost 2 hours late for a 1.5 hour flight, mentally prepared for a night in a Detroit hotel—courtesy of Delta Airlines.

Thanks to a tailwind, I only missed my connection by minutes. But their predictions had been correct, so I dutifully collected my hotel voucher and headed for the baggage carousel.

After a half hour of waiting, I went back to the customer service desk to ask where my bag had ended up. “It’s through-checked,” the agent explained, glancing furtively over her shoulder, which made me wonder if it was just the other side of the wall. “You can’t get it back tonight.” She shook her head. “I don’t know why one of our agents would’ve told you otherwise.” Two of their agents, actually.

And then she brightened. “Would you like an overnight kit?”

Turns out, Delta has premade overnight kits that include a toothbrush, deodorant, shaving cream and a razor, and—yes—a Delta “Sky Team” tshirt suitable for sleepwear. And it only took her 15 minutes to deliver it, by which time I’d missed the next hotel shuttle. Which led to another 20 minute wait.

On the shuttle, the driver greeted us all with, “Delta cancelling flights again?” The veterans sighed and rolled their eyes. Apparently maintenance delays, overbooking, and late flights have escalated to legendary status in the past few months.

(Psst, that’s the end of the rant. And thanks, I feel better now.) So here’s the bigger picture question: How many of us put energy into workarounds (like overnight kits) because we can’t solve the bigger problems (like maintenance delays, miscommunication about baggage, and missed connections)?

Answer: All of us.

I’m sure that from Delta’s point of view, their real problems look too big to solve. So their eager customer service agents come up with fixes they can make themselves. We know we’re having a lot of mechanical issues, which is leading to late flights and missed connections, so how can we make it better for all those customers who’ll be stuck in a hotel overnight without luggage? I know! Let’s put together a little bag of what they might need to get through, so at least they won’t face the morning with furry teeth. (Though thanks to the disorganization in our customer service area, they might have to wait to receive it.)

And while I appreciated the spare toothbrush and the clean T-shirt, it still wasn’t nearly as good a customer experience as either making my original flight (the ideal solution) or regaining control of my own bag (as I’d been promised by two separate agents).

So the moral of this story/rant is this: we should put our energy into solving the big problems. And even when we can’t fix something, we should only promise what we can actually deliver, no matter how much we want to tell the customer standing in front of us that she will sleep in her own pjs.

And whatever we do, we should never, ever treat our workarounds like they’re a real substitute for solving the real problem. Or make anyone wait around for them.

(Though I have to admit, first class was pretty nice.)


Bonus Days: Morphing Snowstorms into Practice

It’s been a tough February for flying into and out of the Northeast, and I definitely qualify as a frequent traveler this month. Recently I made the mistake of adding up the number of nights in my own bed, and it totals a whopping 8 out of 28. So you might think this is going to be yet another tale of travel woe to add to the list: friends stuck in airports, families stuck in airport hotels; folks unable to get home or unable to get away.

Paul and Carol USSC

Nope. This is a tale of three unique opportunities that grew out of weather-related travel challenges. Because in addition to not being home, I’ve been practice-sailing even less. So let me tell you about three bonus practice days that dropped into my lap the past few weeks, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Bonus day #1 was the direct result of taking initiative. Three days before a qualifying regatta in San Diego (read, “must sail event”), a major storm was announced for the day I was scheduled to leave home. So I repacked my bags (less than 48 hours after I’d returned from the previous trip) and flew out a full day ahead of schedule. The next morning I woke up in a cozy bunk on a boat off of San Diego Yacht Club to a text from USAirways: my scheduled flight had been cancelled. “Hah hah, already here!”

So I already had a reason to feel smug for the rest of the day (or even the rest of the weekend), and then I went for an early morning paddle around Shelter Island Harbor. Could it get any better?

The answer, surprisingly, was yes. Thanks to Eric Heim, George Szabo, and crew Seth Siegler, I finished up my work day with a five boat Snipe practice session, gaining an extra day’s familiarity in the boat I would sail for the weekend. The icing on the cake (both literally and figuratively) was a great dinner at the Szabos, catching up and finding answers to my latest tuning questions.

Bonus day #2 was somewhat pre-planned. Paul and I flew down to Miami together to work at the Boat Show, but I was originally scheduled to fly home Saturday morning; Paul was still working the show Saturday, so he’d fly home that night. After finding out that Peter Commette needed a crew for Snipe practice on Saturday, I changed my original ticket to fly back Saturday night with Paul instead. Peter and I used the nice breeze and perfect sunshine to full advantage, putting in a few hours of reaching practice across Biscayne Bay and chatting (rather than hiking) back upwind. Carol, 1: Winter at home, 0.

And Bonus day #2 led to bonus day #3. As we were rigging the boat Saturday morning, Southwest cancelled our flight for that evening because of yet another impending “big one” due to hit Rhode Island that night. It is basically impossible to stand in the boat park of the US Sailing Center in shorts and a T-shirt and pine for blizzard conditions, so when I heard the next available flight home was Monday morning, I didn’t even complain. Because that meant, dang, I had to go sailing again on Sunday! Even better, Paul had a seriously overdue day off in warm weather. Add in a few great meals and some fantastic stories at Chez Commette, plus an early ride to the airport to make our Monday morning flight, and a weather-induced delay turned into yet another bonus day.

Of course without such fantastic hospitality on and off the water, we would’ve found ourselves stuck in some airport hotel with all of the other poor sods whose flights were cancelled. So thanks Peter and Connie Commette, and George and Stacey Szabo, for helping me morph snowstorms into sailing and fun time. Please come visit in RI after the ice melts, so we can reciprocate.

Giving Back on Tin Legs: Hugh Elliot

We lost another sailing friend this week, and there’s something spooky and yet symmetrical about the details, sketchy as they are. I didn’t meet Hugh until long after the accident that cost him both his legs, but I later heard that he had pulled over to help someone by the side of the road and was run into by another car.


This past Saturday he was found again by the side of the road, with his own car still in gear and his foot on the brake. So his last act was to save another life or two, by getting off the highway before he left us.

Hugh was a tireless volunteer in Annapolis, Florida, and beyond, serving as a judge, umpire, or mark boat operator. I rarely saw him without a smile on his face, in spite of the constant physical pain that would’ve kept a less determined man on stable dry land.

He had recently subscribed to this blog, which was a true honor. He was also a frequent commenter, both here and on Facebook. All of his comments were positive, pointed, and brought in a completely new perspective. That was a lot like our many in-person conversations, which usually took place while waiting out a postponement onshore or dissecting the day’s results after sailing was done for the day. He never hesitated to point out any mistakes he’d noticed, but not in a vindictive way: his aim was to make me do better. And I was only one name on a long, long list of sailors he helped and inspired.

I only faced him once across the table in a protest room, but looking back, the experience combined the best and worst of our sport. Regattas are largely run by volunteers, and at this event one of those volunteers had screwed up. Another competitor had filed for redress, and as the winner, I had to go into “the room” to tell my side of the story. I was planning to skirt the nitty gritty details, because in my mind their public airing would accomplish nothing except to humiliate a friendly volunteer (who also happened to be a friend).


Hugh, of course, saw the bigger picture. He wasn’t going to let me cover up someone else’s mistake, which opened up the chance for me to lose the regatta (through no fault of my own except the failure to rat someone out). When he looked across the table and asked me, in that deceptively velvet voice, “Can you tell us what happened before the start of race 3?”, his steely gaze told me he already knew all those nitty gritty details I was hoping to keep off the table. And there was simply no alternative: After a deep sigh, I confirmed what he already knew.

Hugh gave back to the sport with his time and his expertise, but he also shared a passionate belief in common sense—as well as the theory that it’s not exactly common after all. I will miss our conversations at sailing events around the world. But more than that I will miss his quiet belief that doing the right thing, to the best of our ability, at all times, is its own reward.

Eight Bells: Robert Otis Bigelow

From the time I was old enough to ride a bike until I graduated from college, I spent every spare summer moment I could at the Woods Hole Yacht Club. I had many friends there, but one of the best was Robert Otis Bigelow.

Bob was a local racing hotshot, so when he asked me to sail a Knockabout race with him, I was just thrilled. Even as a very green ten year old I understood that this was a big opportunity—and an honor.

Bigelows Woods Hole Yacht Club porch

John Bigelow, me, and Bob Bigelow collect our loot after winning the Labor Day regatta, circa 1977.

I don’t remember who the other member of our crew was the first time I sailed on Blue Jean. But I do remember my first lesson from Bob—because he took time out from trying to win to explain a basic fact of sailboat racing. “See, he’s crossing ahead of us now,” he said, not as a teaching moment but just as a mention of what was going on around us. “The last time we came together we were ahead of him. There’s less current inshore—we’ve got to get in there.”

There were many. many more lessons over the next ten years, as I became part of the regular racing crew on Blue Jean. At thirteen he let me steer a weeknight series race, my very first taste of making my own mistakes. And by fifteen, I was taking his boat out with my own team. His belief in my basic ability to handle his carefully maintained boat made me a very loyal crew on the weekends—a win for all. As a teenager, it’s often easier to absorb lessons from a source outside your own family, and it’s also easier to learn basic sailboat racing on smaller boats. Bob made the most of his unique position to pass along his knowledge, and I soaked it up like a sponge.

On shore, Jean, Bob, John, Peggy, and Carol Bigelow all welcomed me into their family. I spent so much time at their house the summer I was fifteen that when my dad ran into Bob at the Yacht Club one afternoon, they joked about who should be paying for my college tuition in a few years.

And I wasn’t the only Bigelow adoptee. Their house was a meeting place for neighbors of all ages, brought together by our common love of racing small sailboats. Seated around the picnic table that was the social center of the house, I remember a lot of laughter, and a sense of community that easily bridged the many generation gaps. Everyone who came through the door was welcomed—especially if they brought a story to share.

Bob loved to tell stories about the twists and turns of fate. Whenever Yacht Club history came up, he’d tell the tale of taking over as Commodore in 1954, just before the clubhouse was demolished by Hurricane Carol. He never let us forget that the Three Mile Island disaster struck on his own 50th birthday. (Bob worked in the nuclear power industry.) And then there was the best twist of all, about how he and Jean met after being paired up as the two shortest members of a three-couple blind date. “Height is destiny,” he would crow, decades of happy marriage later. I wish he’d written his memoirs, since I’m sure I’ve forgotten (or never heard) some of the best tales he had to tell.

I first realized how much I’d learned from Bob when I started sailing in college. The priorities were much different racing lighter boats, especially on short courses that weren’t skewed by strong currents. But the tactics, strategy, and communication were the same.

He also passed along his drive to win, a deep-rooted determination that never was allowed to override sportsmanship. By example, he showed me how to learn from my mistakes, and that little things (like remembering to bring beer, and team T-shirts that read “Old Age and Treachery”) mean a lot.

I never thanked him directly for all his valuable lessons. But the Cape Cod Times passed along the message—and gave him some press of his own. An edition that came out during the 2004 Olympics showed a picture of my Olympic Yngling team on the front page, with a picture of Bob right below it; he was identified as my sailing mentor. “He never failed to answer any question I could think of,” I told the reporter. (Bob’s photo is missing from the online version, unfortunately.)

My favorite part of the article comes toward the end, when Bob admits his skepticism about my push toward such a lofty goal as the Olympics:

“I thought, be realistic,” he said.  But now, he’s convinced.  “Clearly, I wasn’t the one being realistic,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to evolve to this level.” Sometimes mentors can’t see how fine a base they’ve built.

I had several other teachers along the way, including my own parents. But Bob’s lessons built an early and solid foundation of both skill and attitude. And that foundation took me much farther than either of us ever imagined back in 1974, when we were tacking upwind trying to figure out if we were behind or ahead.

Sail on, Robert O. Your memory and your lessons live on in the many, many lives you touched.


Losing the Belly Fire: Olympic Retirement

The morning of February 6, 2007 is etched in my memory. Pulling out of the Olympic Sailing Center in Miami with my Olympic boat in tow behind me, I turned right to head north. Next stop: a snow-covered New England driveway, 1500 miles away.

I’d driven the boat home before, but never in February. And never, ever with tears blinding me to the road ahead.

For the previous six years, my Olympic dream had propelled me forward, pushing me to ask for money, set up housing, pack boats into containers, and oh yeah, go sailing. All so we could find the extra ounce of speed we needed to look smart at the next event.

And I’d decided to walk away from all of it.

heavy air Olympics 2004

The 2004 Olympics in Athens weren’t such a light air event after all, at least for two days of the Yngling event. Photo: Daniel Forster

The life of an elite athlete has a pure focus on performance, and everything else that consumes normal people’s days and weeks—home life, casual friendships, job, hobbies, vacations—is burned away by an inner fire. No one who hasn’t lived it can possibly understand the mindset of living, eating, and breathing competitive sport.

And while we’re living and eating and breathing it, that life is all we can see. In the spring of 2004, weaving my way across a boat park teeming with Olympic sailors and the best equipment in the world, I remember thinking: How could anyone ever walk away from this?

But less than three years later, I did walk away. Because I’d realized that trying to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated and time-consuming regatta and training schedule was eating me up inside. I’d gone from a fire in my belly to a gut-burn of anxiety. It was time to step off the Olympic merry-go-round.

I knew it was the right decision, because I no longer had the drive to compete with the best in the world. And I didn’t want to make a half-hearted effort just to avoid quitting.

But it was still really hard to walk away, drive home, sell my two boats, and inform the people that mattered (not necessarily in that order). I was responsible for the dreams of others, too, and it meant disappointing teammates and coaches who’d invested time and money in my ability to claw back to the top again. They couldn’t feel that absent belly fire, and I couldn’t explain where it had gone. All I could say was that it was time for me to retire.

This all came back to me this morning, when I read Anna Tunnicliffe’s announcement that she was retiring from Olympic sailing. Anna has had a much more impressive sailing career than I ever did, which makes her decision even harder: the landing is softer when there’s not as far to fall. And of course she handled it with the perfect mix of humility, grace and dignity. Read her entire retirement announcement.

I’m sure Anna won’t regret this, even as we her fans will miss watching her inspire others with her 4Ds (Dream, Desire, Dedication, and Discipline). And six years from now, hopefully she will see (as I do now) that the belly fire that once ignited our Olympic dreams doesn’t die; it just transfers its heat to new passions and fresh challenges, beyond the world of sailboat racing. That may be harder to fit into a sound bite than “I want to go to the Olympics,” but it’s just as satisfying in its own way.

Good luck to Anna, and to all who look into their hearts and realize it’s time to move on. Retiring is hard, but without that fire in your belly, it’s also the right thing to do.

Holiday Book List 2013

I only reviewed two books this year, though I’ve enjoyed many more. Here’s a short holiday book list to finish off 2013.


Spilled Coffee
Authorly jealousy is the sign of a good book, and I had it for Uncharted, Bridget Chicoine’s first novel. And even though there is less boat repair in her second book, Spilled Coffee, I admit to a certain amount of jealousy for its excellent imagery. With constant steps back into the past (marked by a stopwatch picon) and a constant drip of information about the tragedy that’s still affecting the present, this one drew me in too.

Best of all, there’s more available from Chicoine: Portrait of a Girl Running and Portrait of a Protégé both came out in the fall of 2013. They sharethe same protagonist, Leila, but can be read independently (although knowing the backstory from Girl Running does enrich the reading of Protégé). More details are available on Chicoine’s blog.

Powder Burn
I don’t think I would’ve read this snowboarding thriller if I didn’t know the author, Mark Chisnell. But I’m very glad I did; the twists, turns, and details of a remote country in the Himalayas did what fiction does best; took me somewhere I’ve never been and let me walk around, seeing the world through the eyes of Sam, a self-described “glass-half-full kind of girl.” Visit Mark Chisnell’s blog for a full list of his titles.

And now it’s time for some last minute holiday shopping! Best wishes for a great holiday season.

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