Farrah Hall spends most of her life traveling around the world, windsurfing. The pictures and other images she posts on her Facebook page from places like Australia and the south of France seem pretty glamorous, but the reality for the 30-year-old Hall is not.
"It's something that you really have to want to do," Hall said, sitting recently in the Annapolis office of her main sponsor, Compass Marketing.
Hall, who grew up as a recreational sailor in nearby Cape St. Claire and competed in a variety of sports at Broadneck, has aspired to become an Olympic windsurfer ever since she met Mike Gebhardt, a two-time medalist, when he was putting on a clinic while she was attending St. Mary's College. Hall started a windsurfing club at the Southern Maryland school, where she graduated with a degree in biology in 2003.
"He said, 'You can do this. There aren't a lot of women in it right now. We need more people, and you already know how to sail,'" Hall recalled. "That's what planted the idea."
The dream nearly became a reality four years ago. Hall thought she had made the team by finishing among the top two at a pre-Olympic regatta, only to learn that another windsurfer had filed a complaint saying that a collision involving Hall early in the race had caused damage to the other sailor's equipment and caused her to lose ground. The other sailor, who finished fourth, was given Hall's spot on the team.
Despite a lengthy and costly protest by Hall and her attorney, the decision by US Sailing was upheld. Hall says she was fighting an uphill battle because she was a windsurfer and a woman.
"There was a feeling that since all the windsurfers were so new, and most of us were pretty young and we're girls, they could push us around," she said. "One of the main reasons I went through what I went through was I wanted to show them that they can't walk on us, that windsurfing is a force, that the windsurfers do care. It's not a joke for us, no matter what level we are."
Now, looking back, Hall believes that not competing in Beijing wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"In 2008, no one was really ready to go to the Olympics," Hall said. "All the women were competing on the national level, but internationally they were nowhere. This is a sport that you have to make a commitment to for almost a decade to sort of get anywhere. It's taken me six years to build a program, to make mistakes and correct mistakes, and have something I am happy with."
While competing in the Olympics would have helped Hall get better coaching and more funding, she said she is better equipped as she prepares for the final step before the London Olympics this year. Hall, who was selected to the team last month, needs to get a qualifying time at the world championships in Cadiz, Spain, in March.
"I have made a massive amount of progress in the last four years," she said. "It is a sport where you really have to keep going. You can't take a break. If you take a break, you're going to miss kind of trending with the fleet. You're going to miss out on what techniques the fleet is using at the time. If you take a break and come back, it basically feels like everybody is crushing you. They're moving in fast-forward and you're moving in slow-motion."
It hasn't been an easy road for Hall, who had to put on hold her goal of becoming a university biology professor while trying to compete at the Olympic level.
After working full time as a researcher for the state of Florida, studying sea grass and competing in local events, Hall decided to go to Europe in the fall and summer of 2004 to see how her talents stacked up as a windsurfer.
She came home with broken equipment -- and broke.
"It was a disaster," she said, cringing at the memory. "I really didn't know how to get money [for sponsorship]. It's a whole different lifestyle and schedule and expectations. I didn't have all that."
Hall tried again the following summer, and this time latched on with a couple of windsurfers and their coaches for the Polish junior national team. Windsurfing is popular in Poland, where, Hall said, "they focus on windsurfing because it's the cheapest sailing sport."
Meanwhile her mother, Linda Hall, stepped in to help, seeing an advertisement from Compass Marketing in the program of a local musical performance she helped organize. She called the company, got CEO John White on the phone and set up an appointment for her daughter to see him.
"Farrah represents everything that our company is about -- she's passionate, she's competent and she has a good moral fiber that stems from the way she was brought up," White said recently.
Currently coached by a 27-year-old Polish windsurfer named Max Wojcik, Hall said she is now receiving $60,000 a year in sponsorship with a goal of getting between $80,000 and $100,000. She spent the past few months traveling to competitions in Europe and helping support herself by doing clinics in the United States.
Though gaining an Olympic qualifying time appears to be a reasonable next step for Hall, she said she is taking nothing for granted. Not after what happened the last time around.
"I have to show up and I have to have a solid event," she said. "It should be relatively easy to do, but I can't just show up and do poorly. It's something that I'm confident I can do, but it's not completely easy to do. At any event you have performance goals. Instead of a goal where you'd finish in a specific spot, you say, 'OK, I'll have good starts, I'll make solid decisions, I'll use a technique I've been working on developing.'"
Hall is also confident that the politics that scuttled her dream four years ago will not be repeated as a result of the overall new leadership of US Sailing, with Hall of Famer Gary Jobson now at the helm, though she acknowledges that those she fought on the Olympic level are still in the same positions.
"I think they have learned how to deal with problems better," she said.
She doesn't seem bitter about what happened. If anything, she seems more resolute.
"I think the main thing that bothered me about '08 was the politics," she said. "Losing the Olympic spot wasn't such a big deal to me. If I had lost it in a fair way, like I lost the competition, it would not have mattered so much. But I think I was really disappointed by the actions of US Sailing."
Jobson said in an interview last week that he admires Hall's determination to make the Olympics, saying she "got a bad deal" the last time around.
"I'm going to be mighty glad to see her walk into the stadium [for the opening ceremonies with] all the athletes," Jobson said. "When she gets there, I hope she gets good results."
Linda Hall is not surprised her daughter has stuck with her dream, recalling how Farrah taught herself how to windsurf after the family was given a small boat when she was in high school. There were days when Farrah Hall started out in the Magothy or Severn rivers and was blown into the Chesapeake Bay.
"She would have to flag boaters to get her a rope to take her back to Cape St. Claire beach," her mother recalled. "It was just a lot of dedication to her sport. She always wanted to go to the Olympics."
Hall is working toward that, spending weeks at a time in places like Weymouth, England, where the Olympic competition will take place, as well as in Poland, France and Spain. She recently returned from a competition in Fremantle, Australia. She shipped her minivan and board to Europe.
"I live pretty much on the road," Hall said. "A lot of my stuff is at my parents' house. I'm there about a month and a half during the year."
Said Jobson, "Anybody that's going to do the Olympics has to be totally dedicated and willing to compromise their life, and she's been on an eight-year mission."
Hall is not sure what she will do after the Olympics.
"Right now, I'm on the fence," she said. "I definitely want to go back to graduate school. I don't know if I want to do another Olympic campaign or not. It depends on the level of funding I have. Also if I feel I can put together a good program. It depends on the circumstances I have with the Olympics."
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