Remarkable Woman: Maggie Shea

Maggie Shea can relate to the athletes who will give their all at the Olympics.

The 23-year-old sailor and Wilmette native did the same during the Olympic trials in Europe, vying to represent the United States in the new Olympic event of women's match racing, in which two three-woman crews sail against each other.

Shea and her two teammates were eliminated in the semifinals.

But Shea scored many victories at Connecticut College, where she was captain of the sailing team two years. Her team finished second at women's nationals her senior year in 2011. She finished fourth at single-handed nationals and was an All-American honorable mention her sophomore year.

Shea's 81-year-old grandfather, John Nedeau, has amply demonstrated that there are many races left to win, lose and draw lessons from. Shea has logged many hours riding the wind — and riding out the doldrums — with him, other family members and friends on the Chicago Race to Mackinac.

Her grandfather and his crew on Windancer, a Santa Cruz 70, won last year's Mac race, the world's longest annual freshwater sailing race. They intend to defend their title in this weekend's Mac, which will be his 65th and her 7th.

Afterward, she will return from Mackinac Island to resume work as an event director at the Chicago Match Race Center and cheer American sailors as the Olympic games begin.

Q: What are the roots of your passion?

A: My entire family, especially my mom's side, sails. I started doing Macs when I was 16. I wanted to before that, but that was the age my grandfather set.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?

A: I don't think I have had it yet. But being part of the Olympic campaign is probably my biggest. My skipper's name was Stephanie Roble. I grew up sailing with and against her. In the first stage of the Olympic trials, we finished in the top four. We went up against Anna Tunnicliffe (who won gold in Beijing in the Laser Radial event) in the semifinals. She beat us. We have a lot of respect for her as a competitor and feel she'll go on to get the gold. ... One of my big goals is to make it to the Olympics in 2016 or 2020.

Q: What is your biggest disappointment?

A: It had to do with not receiving All-American. It was a big turning point in my college career. It made me realize that my sailing career was worth more than individual rewards, that the friendship and leadership and teamwork skills were so much more meaningful.

Q: What's the upshot of defeat?

A: The fact Anna beat us pretty handily didn't take away from what we felt we had accomplished. We were able to handle defeat on the water and handle mistakes without having emotional breakdowns. We had lost three in a row, but we put all we had into them and made decisions as best we could. We had to hold our heads high because we had four more races in front of us. We didn't qualify and we don't consider the campaign a failure and that was a big takeaway. Stephanie and I gave a speech to a junior program recently. We told them if you're interested in doing a campaign, you have nothing to lose if it's what you want to be doing.

Q: How do you keep friendship and competition in perspective?

A: Stephanie and I have had a very dynamic relationship. We've been absolute rivals but we've been able to dissociate competition from friendship. We've lived together, worked together and competed against each other fiercely. She's one of my best friends. We're both figuring out the next adventure.

Q: Is your sport male-dominated?

A: Match racing on the whole is an open division, but coed match racing is almost all male. There are difficulties women face because keel boat sailing is extremely physical, but women can have a tactical edge. Women's match racing exploded after being included in the 2012 Olympics. It has created so many opportunities for females.

Q: Sailing hascomes with some upper-crust stereotypes. Are they accurate?

A: While owning a yacht obviously comes along with a financial burden, there are so many opportunities to crew, to sail smaller boats and get involved in recreational and competitive sailing. Chicago Yacht Club has a great sailing school and that's where I grew up learning. There's also an adult program. It's a really inclusive sailing community in the Midwest.

Q: Who is your hero?

A: My grandfather. He is an Island Goat (a title bestowed on those who complete 25 Races to Mackinac). He holds the record for the most Chicago Mac races. As he is getting older he spends a lot of time down below in the boat. But he still sticks his head up and looks around and tells us everything we're doing wrong within five seconds. He taught me that regret is an empty feeling, and to live life without regret. That's how he has been able to enjoy his passion for 80 years.

Q: What are the secrets to success?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is when we were training for our Olympic campaign, we were fixating on everything we were doing wrong. We started framing our mistakes as opportunities for learning and that helped us move forward as a group. It sounds pretty basic but it really helped us. Also, from Sally Barkow (a top-ranked match racer), I learned how important it is to keep a level head. She was explaining to me about not getting too psyched about a win and not too bummed about a loss. It reminds me a lot of my grandfather.

Q: What's your fondest memory?

A: Growing up and doing overnight races with my family. There's nothing like being in the middle of the lake without cellphones — just sailing, sleeping and eating on the boat for days at a time.

Q: What do you do when you're not sailing?

A: I think about sailing. I do some coaching. I do a lot of cycling too. I feel lucky to have my passion be a part of my job.

Q: What's the best part of sailing?

A: Nothing else really matters when you're on the water.

Read about the Race to Mackinac at

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