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Top Women Bring New Life to Laser Radials

MARINA DEL REY, Calif.—Like little white leaves in a storm, 88 boats sailed by the world’s best women Laser Radial sailors blow into Santa Monica Bay this weekend, advancing their Olympic dreams one step closer to an ultimate showdown at Qingdao, China in 2008.

The 2006 Laser Radial World Championships are a major step toward the class’s introduction as the Olympic singlehanded dinghy class for women. The fleet will include 19 of the top 20 women in the current rankings by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), led by defending champion Paige Railey, 19, and Anna Tunnicliffe, 23, of the U.S.; Laura Baldwin, 26, of the UK, and 2004 world champion Krystal Weir, 21, of Australia.

They will be among 90 women competitors from 31 countries racing Sunday through Friday, following a practice race and opening ceremonies at the host California Yacht Club Saturday. The first of two races daily will start at 1 p.m., conditions permitting. The first six races will be a qualifying series to determine a split into Gold and Silver fleets for the final six races.

The women will share the race course off the beach west of Los Angeles with 74 men from 21 countries contesting the men’s Radial championship, to be followed the next week by the Radial Youth Worlds Aug. 5-12 for 181 boys and girls ages 15 to 18.

If, for a change, sailing’s spotlight falls on the women, it’s their talent level and significance of their competition that draws it. The Laser Radial, with 5.76 square meters of area in its single sail, has joined the Laser (7.06) in the Olympic Games, replacing the Europe as the women’s singlehanded dinghy. The Laser became an Olympic men’s class at Savannah in 1996, but the men in this event will sail Radials without Olympic implications.

The switch from Europe to Laser Radial has turbocharged the class, and most of the top women Europe sailors—including Railey, Baldwin and Weir—have made the leap to the Radial.

Baldwin sailed a Europe for Great Britain at the Athens Olympics in 2004, and about three months later the Europe was out and the Radial was in. Baldwin joined the exodus.

I loved my 2005 training group,” she said. “Great girls. The problem was that we were all Europe sailors with no idea about how to sail a Laser properly, so I broke away just before the World Championships to work with the 2005 Laser World Championships silver medalist, Diego Romero [of Argentina], and gained my best result at a Worlds, finishing 11th.”

Baldwin now ranks third in the Radial class, just ahead of Weir.

If the transition of the class has a benchmark, it may be Katarzyna Szotynska, 25, of Poland. Before the Radial went Olympic, she held sway with women’s world championships in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Now she ranks 15th, although she placed fourth in the recent European championship.

Tunnicliffe, the women’s College Sailor the Year at Virginia’s Old Dominion in 2005, said, “The class has grown huge and its very, very competitive.”

She sailed a Europe only for two months up to the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 and did not grieve the passing of the class in favor of her favorite boat, the Radial.

“I was very excited,” she said. “I was rooting for it the whole time.”

While still a junior, Railey enjoyed international success in the Europe, but her move to the Radial led to an ongoing turf rivalry with Tunnicliffe.

“Paige and I being one-two just makes for a good battle,” Tunnicliffe said. “I’m not sure she feels the same way, but it’s always exciting to outdo the other one. We’re [American] teammates but rivals at the same time.”

Rivals. that is, for one of the sole Olympic berths available to each country in each class. They are the only Americans currently ranked 1-2 by the International Sailing Federation in any Olympic class. The winner won’t be known until the Trials late next year, and then the rankings won’t count.

“All that counts then is who’s best on the water,” Tunnicliffe said.

The Radial is set up for sailors weighing from 55 to 70 kilos (121 to 154 pounds), the Laser for 60 kilos (132 pounds) and up.

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