Crofton sailor gets competitive for five-day event


DENISE SWENSEN IS a mother of two and a physical therapist for Anne Arundel County public schools. And, last week, she was a Ragin' Cajun on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Crofton woman joined more than 200 of the world's best female sailors in Annapolis for the Rolex International Women's Keelboat Championship. Olympic champions, college All-Americans and the sailing world's legends, rising stars and accomplished competitors competed in the five-day, 10-race series.

Swensen was one of four crew members on the Ragin' Cajuns team, skippered by Annapolis' Bonnie Urban.

The team trained for six months to prepare for the event. Urban and Swensen were joined by West River's Teri Nilsen and Annapolis' Tara Carew.

"It was fun," Swensen said, "but it was hard work."

Swensen began sailing as a college student in the New York area. Her husband, Dennis, introduced her to racing. The couple have sailed Flying Scots for almost 15 years. A few years ago, they took third place in a national husband-and-wife Flying Scot regatta.

Urban, an accomplished sailor, knew Swensen through her work in the public schools, where Urban is an occupational therapist. Over the years, they shared stories about sailing.

In February, they took part in a "frostbite" race together. Then, in March, when Urban was choosing her crew for the Rolex race, she asked Swensen to take part.

Swensen says she was hesitant. After all, participating in the event would be a huge commitment. The crew had to practice two nights a week and would take part in many weekend races. They knew they would face fierce competition in Annapolis.

Swensen had her children, her husband, her home and her career to think of. Still, this was an opportunity too good to pass up - to be able to compete with the top female sailors in the world.

She praised Urban's ability to choose people who worked well together. They worked hard, but they also laughed. And when things went wrong, people worked together to make them right, instead of just yelling.

Swensen told a story to illustrate her point. Sept. 24, the first day of racing, was grueling. There was a strong southerly wind, 5-foot seas and fierce weather. A storm that day brought a tornado a bit west of the Bay. The Ragin' Cajuns, sailing on a 22-foot boat of the same name, did not fare well.

The next day's weather wasn't much better. Once again, the team didn't fare as well as they had hoped. They left the Annapolis Yacht Club glum and dejected.

In a gift shop in downtown Annapolis, someone saw a silly gag item, goofy teeth. Wednesday morning, on the way out to the race area in the bay, each of the crew members wore a set of the teeth.

They knew they hadn't done well the first two days, but they decided to maintain their perspective. Camaraderie was important, so they decided to have fun. They laughed and made faces on their way to the starting point of the race and had a wonderful time.

Of course, during the race itself, they took off the silly teeth and got serious. But the sadness was broken, their teamwork was reinforced and they finished 16th.

"We were so excited you would have thought we won first place," Swensen recalled with a laugh.

Thursday was even better. The wind that day was, in Swensen's words, "our wind," a typical Chesapeake Bay breeze, about 10 mph and constantly shifting. Carew played the wind beautifully and the crew came in 11th.

After Friday's final race, the team had achieved its goal, finishing in the middle of the very talented field of racers.

Now, Swensen is back to "normal" life with her family, her home and her job.

Would she do it again? Probably.

As Swensen sees it, racing may be hard work, but "being able to do what you have to do when you need to do it" is a very good feeling. Also, she cherished the friendships she made with women from all over the world, the challenge of competing against the best.

"The most important thing is the camaraderie among the teams," she said.

Music on the way in Crofton

When life gets busy or tense, it's time for some good music. So the Crofton Civic Association's recreation assistant, John Wortman, has arranged an outdoor concert at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Village Green. Pocket Change, a popular local band that features Arundel High's Phillip Butts, will present a two-hour program, with a mix of oldies and patriotic music.

For more information, contact Town Hall at 410-721-2301.

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