STAMFORD -- Hundreds of small sailboats covered the grass in front of Stamford Yacht Club Saturday morning as 217 young competitors marched one-by-one like a line of ants off the lawn, carrying the dinghies down the pier and into Long Island Sound for a regatta.
The young sailors, who range in age from 10 to 15, are all top-level athletes who race optimist dinghies -- the biggest beginner boat in the nation -- and had to qualify at previous competitions to earn their place in Stamford this weekend for the United States Optimist Dinghy Association's team trial regatta.
"This is a really big event," said Stamford Yacht Club Commodore Tom Campfield. "And having it here is a great coup for us."
Racers gathered from all corners of the country to participate in the trials, hoping to earn their way onto the elite team of five heading to world competitions later this year. Other top athletes will also win spots on teams heading to North American and European competitions.
"Having this here is also great for the city," said Campfield. "All these people are staying at the hotels here, and they're eating at the restaurants."
And many of the families with children participating in the race have had a pretty extended stay. Sarah Olmsted accompanied her 12-year-old son Nathan to the race, having arrived in Stamford from their native Minnesota the Friday before racing began, staying for a total of nine days.
"He practiced on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and then we took the day off on Wednesday and went into New York City," Sarah Olmsted said as her son enjoyed his last few minutes on dry land for about nine hours, shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday morning.
Nathan has been sailing for half of his life -- since he was about 6 years old -- and remained calm and collected Saturday morning, saying his main goal for the day was just to "learn more so I can bring it back to Minnesota."
The waters off the coast of Stamford had already offered him a steady learning curve in his practice time, he said.
"This is really different than Minnesota, because at home, it's only lakes, and I had to learn the current here and how to deal with that," he said.
Racers learn more than just how to navigate currents, USODA President Brendan Shanahan said Saturday as he stood on the Yacht Club's pier, watching sailors cast their boats into the Sound.
"So many of these kids have taken a week off school to do this, but they've gotten their homework from their teachers and they're learning how to manage that with all of this," he said. "You have to be a responsible kid to be competing at this level."
For the Olmsteds, competitive racing has served as preparation for the real world.
"It's a lot of fun because they get to meet kids from all over the country that they'll see at other regattas, so they make friendships and they learn how to be independent," Sarah Olmsted said.
"Everything out on the water is them learning how to be a better sailor, but they're also learning how to travel and prepare themselves and make sure they eat and sleep and take care of their body. It's good practice for college."
Of course, that's a long way off for competitors like Nathan Olmsted.
"I just want to do well today," he said.
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