Farrah Hall pursues her Olympic dream in windsurfing out of her own pocket

July 19, 2012

Farrah Hall was home in Maryland last week for the first time since February. She had just a week before she was scheduled to leave to represent the United States in windsurfing in the London Olympics. But she had another trip to make first.

Hall spent part of the week in New York and New Orleans organizing slide-show presentations she used to thank her sponsors and possibly garner more donations.

The 30-year-old Hall is an entirely self-funded athlete, one of the athletes on the U.S. teamwho must cover expenses that include travel, equipment, competition fees and a full-time coach.

That puts her, and other competitors in minor Olympic sports, at a disadvantage if their families aren’t able to help financially, she said. One of the biggest difficulties is simply getting started; the initial investment is large and quite risky, she said.

After graduating from St. Mary’s College in 2003, Hall raised her own starting costs by working for two years in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a marine biologist. In 2005, she left the job to begin traveling full time on both the national and international windsurfing circuits.

“I was at the age where my parents were like ‘You want to do what?’ ” Hall said. “ ‘You just graduated with a degree in biology, you have a job in your field, but okay.’”

A native of Cape St. Claire, Md., Hall didn’t begin windsurfing until high school, when her boyfriend stopped by her house with a windsurfer. After graduating from Broadneck High in Anne Arundel County, she spent the summer with a friend in Martha’s Vineyard and learned the intricacies of the sport while she worked at a windsurfing store.

Her passion grew as she started a windsurfing club in college and sailed on the St. Mary’s River. She realized she could pursue the sport even further after meeting Mike Gebhardt, who competed in five Olympics.

Hall thought she had fulfilled her own Olympic dream five years ago after finishing first at the U.S. trials, rallying to win the by one point on the last day. But Nancy Rios, who finished second, filed a complaint with U.S. Sailing, saying her performance was compromised by an eight-inch rip in her sail. Without hearing from Hall, a three-judge panel ruled that Rios was wronged and awarded her the lone spot on the Olympic team.

The U.S. Olympic Committee ruled two years later that Hall was wrongly denied a spot on the team. But the games had been long completed.

“It’s the Olympic trials. You’re deciding who goes to the Olympics,” Hall said. “And they just completely botched the decision.”

Hall said she doesn’t expect to win a medal in London; she’d be pleased with a top-10 finish. The sport is dominated by Asian and European nations that have been drawn to the sport by its manageable costs.

Those nations’ teams are government funded, she said, while the U.S. teams are privately funded. The system makes it difficult for the American athlete, who must focus on both fundraising and competing, she said.

“You’re going to notice, probably at these games, that the U.S. is going to fall further and further behind in the medal count,” Hall said.

In the past year, Hall said she has raised $100,000. Nearly 60 percent of that goes to her coach, Max Wojcik.

She spent six months this year living in Poland, where Wojcik is based. It’s less expensive to stay abroad for long periods than to travel back and forth. Hall said she’s home just 90 days a year; when she is, she saves money by living with her parents. She flew to England on Monday, her lodging and travel costs paid by the U.S. Olympic Committee. She still will be training, but it’ll be a welcome break from the fundraising.

“It’s my full-time job,” Hall said. “I basically train and fundraise. And train and fundraise.”

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