It is early in the morning, May 27th—Opening day for the American crowd here in Hood River. Walking to the local breakfast spot l can see Rhonda coming up the street to join me. This is our fifth attempt to get together and talk ‘about the sport‘ which to us, can only mean one thing—the situation of the sport not the sailing conditions.
Rhonda is a busy person these days. Her windsurfing school business is booming, she is continually involved in small projects everywhere, and yet somehow she always finds time. Time to invite former clinic students out for a drink, time to jump in on a pritate lesson with a customer, time to promote more participation in the sport. (Hell. for that matter, time to talk to me!)
Arguably the definitive professional woman in the sport of windsurfing, Rhonda Smith is recognized above all others. Strangely, however, one gets the sense in talking with her that she is still looking for her place in the sport; a strange way to reel for a true legend in windsurfing. Perhaps, on this day, or for this season, she has found it and perheps not. Either way, regerdless of
the stature she has attained, she will always look for ways to make it better for everyone involved.
When we sit to talk, conversation tends to drift all over the sport. As one of windsurfing’s earliest professional sailors, she is fluent in all aspects of racing and the industry. She is ine of a handful—no, not even that many who can definitevely comment on all aspects of the sport and industry. She has been there. She has done that. Go ahead, ask her.
We compare notes about our respective businesses. We ere both learning about what it means to own your own, and a lot of it sounds strangely similar to conversations we had out in the freezing conditions on the World Cup Tour; about how it was less glamorous than we were expecting. However, now that her business is more established, she indulges in a rare glance back to her starting point. “When l was putting my center together, people told me it couldn’t be done! No one could ever teach beginning sailing in the cradle of high performance windsufing. But we went out, found the location, and did it. Now l have one of the best beginner beaches in the country. That’s where the sport needs to go. It really needs the radical image to keep it looking fresh, but the future is in family participation. Dad wants to go to swell city, mom needs a place to work on her turns, and their kids can sail but just need someone to check in on them now and then.”
“This year I’m more into running the business like a business—I’m still losing sleep over some things, but I’m learning to let go, let the business just run.”
To hear her say these things is en exercise in trying to figure out the make-up of her statements. Rhonda’s experience goes so much deeper then anything that she is doing now. She has a vast pool of talent end experience to draw from, and every statement is the product of cumulative thought—a truth that comes out after much deliberation.
True, her dedication has taken her to the upper echelons of this sport, and her current reward for it, outside of being happily married, is her stature as an icon to other sailors. Of this, at least, you can tell she is quietly proud.
“l am a role model, but l never thought l would be—l didn’t ever set out to be. I just set out to have an identity, to be independent. It’s a real satisfying feeling to have people come in and see the trophies and say—’yeah—she did it, I can do it too.’. Because you know ehat? I know they can. if I can be helpful like that—that’s cool.”. She has within her sphere of influence one of America’s top women Olympic sailors—Jayne Fenner. At twentyone, Jayne is a newcomer to professional anything, but she seems to have that pool of experience to draw from. People draw similarities between Rhonda and Jayne, but Rhonda insists that they are different on many levels—only shades perhaps, but many shades. “Maybe we are similar, but there are things that make us differ completely. We both have this trust in people, I used to draw my professional inspiration from people like Martina Nanatalova and Chris Evert. I used to go to those annual events, ‘Celebration of Women in Sports’ events, and meet these huge sports people, as well as the president. (As in “of the United States”) When I came back no one knew where I had been. Sometimes I get bummed that no one knows what I’ve seen and done, but when I get a chance to be an example, to inspire people like Jayne: that makes me feel settled.” (perhaps “validated”?)
If you could fathom how difficult it is to be a competitor on the World Tour, you would only half-understand how difficult it was for some women competitors. “I really admire professional women these days—they have an uncertain future, they don’t know if they will have an event next week,
but some of them are out there, I mean the ones who don’t have other sources of funding, and they are giving everything they have. If it disappears, it could be a disaster for them. The main thing for those people, though, is that the fight, as it for me, is on the water—go out there and prove to everyone that you are who you say you are. If you lose, fine, suck it up—that’s professional sports, but if not, you’ve stood up to the challenge.”
Continually connected to the sport and its current issues, we are all caught up in the plight of Women’s sailing, especially since they are being taken out of the few professional events that remain. While some choose to stand around and complain, others, including Rhonda, see a unique opportunity.
“When it comes right down to it—l have seen this since the beginning of my career, and have had to fight these fights for years—women are fighting for what—to be compared to the men? What they are fighting for is a small photo, a short paragraph, and a share of the prize money that no professional could live off of.”
“What they should be fighting for is their own event! I saw the same thing in Pro Beach Volleyball. When the women were alongside the men—it didn’t happen. When they went and had their own events, their own sponsors and got out on their own, they were unreal!”
“If women had their own event, there wouldn’t be a small photo, there would be lots of big ones! There wouldn’t be a small paragraph, there would be an article! It’s touchy right now because women’s sailing has so few professional participants. The sponsors are out there, and it could happen. Sure, someone might get sacrificed in the process, but the change has got to happen. The hurt is normal, and in many cases justified, but now that everyone has been hurt–fine. Let’s build some bridges and go forward. Let’s find sponsors from all those people we have come into contact with and let them have a part in this. Women’s athletics are happening, why isn’t women’s windsurfing?”
Now, some people would call this just another woman whining, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a challenge. Perhaps this is a request for everyone to go out on the water and put their money where their mouth is.
*Click* the tape recorder pops off and we are left looking at each other, slightly out of breath, over our half-eaten breakfast. Somehow, I think I should bring a tape recorder to every conversation we have. They move so quickly and
cover so much ground.
Rhonda is up and moving. It is going to be a great weekend for her and she wants to have both feet on the ground when the first guests arrive. As she leaves, a friend walks in with an aquaintance, also named Rhonda.
“Nice to meet you Rhonda,” says the new Rhonda, “but I bet neither of us sails as well as that other Rhonda. You know, Rhonda Smith…”
So goes the life of a walking talking legend. Oh, and remember, the truth is always stranger than fiction.