Elise Smith learned that her gymnastics career would require her to take cortisone shots to continue competition, and her knees weren’t prepared for the strain.
So, the Schererville teenager picked a sport that required less impact and more math.
Smith started competitive sailing, and when the 104th Chicago to Mackinac race takes off Saturday, it be the first for the 14-year-old who is following in her father’s footsteps.
“I’ve always been competitive at everything, with everyone,” Smith said. “I had to do something competitive after I was out of gymnastics. I really liked sailing.”
Smith, who will be a freshman at Lake Central in the fall, started sailing out of Michigan City Yacht Club, working first the daily races, then a few overnight, then onto the bigger races.
She’ll be joined on the crew of the "Michela" by 17-year-old Ryan Freeman, who is a senior at Chesterton.
Because the two are the lightest on the crew, they work on the foredeck. Smith will also be charged with helping to navigate, gauging wind direction and speed, and raising and lowering the halyards.
“She has the maturity to race this now,” said her father, Bill Smith, who is also on the crew of the "Michela." “We do night races, and when they start doing night races, when they become active on the crew, when they’re physically able to do what you need done, and they’re not ‘oh, it’s 8 o’clock, time for bed,’ that’s when you know it’s right. She’s there; she can take just a couple hours to sleep, and she can function right away.”
Smith said that he and his wife, Lisa, took both of their children on their sailboat when they were still in car seats. Elise looked most comfortable, even at 5 months old.
“Elise was always into it,” Bill Smith said. “When I started racing to Mackinac, she would come back with us on the delivery boat, and eventually she started coming out on Saturdays to race club races in Michigan City.”
The boat is skippered by Miguel Gambetta, who only a couple months ago gave the OK for Elise to compete in the 333-mile race.
Charting the navigation is a mathematician’s job, one that requires understanding of a boat’s speed and distance while on the open water when land is nowhere to be seen. Elise said that she was in advanced math and algebra as an eighth-grader, prepared to enter geometry as a freshman.
“I like to know that I’m the only person who knows where we are and where we’re going,” Elise said. “I like being able to figure that out.”
The race typically takes 30 to 50 hours to finish. Just reaching Mackinac Island, on the northeast coast of Michigan at the tip of Lake Huron, is one of the ultimate goals for Elise Smith.
“I just want to say I’ve done it,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to say I’ve raced that race.”
The freshman already knows where she wants to attend college.
“My hope is to go to Michigan,” she said. “I want to be on their sailing team.”
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