Reineke plots grueling course

At 19, Erika Reineke goes up against much more experienced women in international competition. U.S. Sailing

The sunny little girl didn't want to admit she was afraid of the wind and the waves and being alone on the water, at 8 years old in a boat just under eight feet long called an Optimist. Erika Reineke cried and begged and used every creative excuse she could summon to avoid going to her weekend sailing lessons at the Lauderdale Yacht Club in her hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Her mother, Sharon, successfully bribed Erika with chocolate chip cookies. Then Erika had that one life-changing day when she made the breeze work for her, and felt the accompanying happy jolt that comes with "that feeling of being better than your peers,'' as she put it.

That is how a world-class sailing career was launched. And it has been a sweet one so far.

At 19, Erika Reineke is one of the most promising young sailors in the world, having already won youth and under-21 world championships and a collegiate title as a Boston College freshman last fall, all in the Laser Radial class. She was a finalist for college sailor of the year.

The Laser Radial also is the equipment for the women's Olympic event, which was contested in the past two Summer Games and is on the slate again for Rio 2016, a logical target for Reineke. But she has plotted a course that isn't the shortest from A to B for the next three years.

Reineke chose Boston College partly because of its top-notch sailing program, but also because she's an ardent student who wanted a challenging academic menu. She is leaning toward a major in environmental sciences and intends to stay in school full-time rather than take a hiatus for an Olympic campaign. Those who know her best say that will be difficult, but it would be a mistake to doubt her.

Boston College head sailing coach Greg Wilkinson said Reineke strives for balance in her life as much as she does on the water, aiming to push right to the edge of her abilities without capsizing. She was an integral part of the team's community service program, which included school visits and work at a local food bank, and has immersed herself in the group ethos.

"She loves what she's doing, and she has a healthy fear of that going away,'' Wilkinson said. "That might be more important to her than winning.''

At the moment, the love and the results are still cruising along in tandem. Reineke punctuates her conversation with a giggle so infectious that her mother once taped it on her cell phone to replay on blue days.

Taking to the water

Erika does not come from a sailing clan. Her father is a pathologist and her mother worked as an interior designer "before my younger sister and I and sailing basically took over her life,'' Erika said with that chiming laugh of hers. The Reinekes joined the yacht club when they moved to South Florida thinking it would be a vehicle for family outings, not the catalyst for a passion.

"I tried [sailing] after the kids got into it, but I got seasick,'' Sharon Reineke said.

Erika was also a strong swimmer, and for a while she juggled both sports. "But once she got a feel for having her own vessel, being in the wind and the breeze, being wet, being with her friends all the time -- they were always her best friends -- she had to choose what was best for her,'' Sharon said.

Erika's fears of blustery weather evaporated in that company and she embarked on a few adventures even she will admit were foolish in her home waters -- still her favorite place to sail in the world. "I love tropical storms,'' she said. "I love going out in insane conditions.''

In single-handed races as a child and a young teenager, Reineke competed against both boys and girls and said the experience made her stronger. It was good preparation for her precocious international career, where she competes against women who are much older and more seasoned.

"I've learned more way faster than I would have,'' Reineke said. "Yes, it was hard, but I try to go out there with the attitude that I'm qualified to sail against them. Sailing's an extremely mental sport."

Olympic gold medalist Anna Tunnicliffe, who helped coach Reineke for a number of years with her former husband, Brad Funk, has been a special mentor. "She's a very driven girl who doesn't like to lose,'' said Tunnicliffe, who won the Laser Radial class at the 2008 Summer Games. "She always looks for a solution. She knew from an early age, somehow figured out that this is what she needs to do, and that enabled her to develop her natural talent much earlier. She's very observant.''

Tunnicliffe encouraged Reineke to compete on the college level and supports her ambition to remain at Boston College in the lead-up to Rio. "If you give those years up, you miss a lot,'' said Tunnicliffe, who was an All-American at Old Dominion. "It's not like she's not sailing in college. She's practicing six days a week with awesome sailors."

It's been a transition, and not just because New England is at a different latitude. College sailing courses are shorter and tend to level out skill differences. Reineke also had to get used to double-handed competition, which means she has company in the boat. "I didn't think I'd like it," she said, "but I was completely wrong."

Teams pack 18 races -- each lasting 20 minutes, with just a few minutes in between -- into a regatta. That makes for a long day of continuous concentration, which suits Reineke, who responds well to simple, unemotional direction, according to BC's Wilkinson. "She's more mature than most people her age, and she's had high-pressure experience at elite events,'' he said. Rather than analyze the last race, the coach will hand Reineke a note with advice on the next.

"She seems to really relish the process,'' Wilkinson said, even the tedious sessions in the gym. "I think the sky's the limit for Erika.''

Appreciating the beauty

The next big event on Reineke's calendar is the European Championships, which start in Ireland in late August. Then it's back to the fall college sailing season.

She doesn't tend to look too far beyond the next goal, so she hasn't devoted much thought to whether she's destined to be one of those skippers who takes on ocean crossings solo. Reineke did take part in tryouts for the inaugural youth America's Cup last spring, her first experience on a boat that size. "I've never gone that fast in a sailboat,'' she said with some awe.

Her mother will keep watching from land with great confidence. "Her final two years in Optis, 14 or 15 years old, she'd rig her boat and just stand there while everyone else was hooting and hollering,'' Sharon Reineke said. "She knew she had a job to do and she was very serious. Not even the coaches would talk to her. They'd let her sit all by herself and listen to music. She doesn't like to get distracted.''

Yet as demanding as racing can be, Erika said she has never stopped appreciating the beauty of her workplace.

"I try to make time for that every time I go out there,'' she said. "People get caught up in competition, and I do too, but I don't want to ever forget how lucky I am and how amazing it is out on the water.''