FUJISAWA, Japan — Wilmette, Ill., native Maggie Shea had been telling herself this was just another sailing race in a lifetime of sailing races.
Then she saw her boat.
Per tradition, the skiff was rebranded with the Olympic logo and “USA” along the side. The gennaker sail, which typically bears a sponsor’s logo, was now emblazoned with a 270-square-foot American flag.
Shea put her arm around her teammate, Stephanie Roble, and took in the moment. Friends since they were teenagers on the Midwestern racing circuit, the duo marveled at what they had achieved as a team.
“We’ve been sailing together for so long and to have done it together and have that moment was really cool,” said Roble, who lives in East Troy, Wis.
Roble and Shea are in eighth place following two days of racing in the 49er FX skiff class and remain in the mix for a medal. They capsized near the finish line of their final race Wednesday, costing them valuable points in the standings — but not their good spirits.
There were no grim faces or tense body language after the race, just an acknowledgment that they have something to figure out together. In the biggest competition of their lives, the childhood friends are relying upon the communication skills that have bolstered their professional partnership and kept their personal friendship in tact since the start of their Olympic campaign five years ago.
“Even though we’re genuinely great friends and we enjoy spending time together, we still have to work really hard on our team dynamic,” Shea told the Chicago Tribune before leaving for Japan. “It’s a skill set we need to work on just as much as our boat handling and fitness.”
Over the years, the pair has worked with a sport psychologist on stress management, mental toughness and their relationship. In addition to being personal friends and teammates, they’re also business partners who must raise money for their sailing expenses and then decide how to best spend it.
It can be a heavy strain on even the closest of friendships, so Roble and Shea make an effort to protect theirs.
“We compartmentalize our relationship,” Shea said. “We’re very conscious of Steph and Maggie as friends, Steph and Maggie as business partners and Steph and Maggie as teammates.”
As part of protecting their relationship, Shea and Roble try not to room together when traveling. In a sport where they literally work on top of each other as they glide across the water, they believe it’s important to have some personal space on dry land.
They also have strict rules about how they text each other. Sailing- and business-related conversations take place on WhatsApp, a messaging service favored by world-class athletes because of its convenience while traveling overseas. The personal discussions take place over iMessage, so their difficult professional discussions don’t color their friendship.
In a sport where there is constant pressure to raise money for boat upkeep, traveling expenses and their coach’s salary, Shea said it’s not unusual for them to be having a tough conversation about finances on WhatsApp and then ping each other on iMessage with a question about what to wear to a Friday night event.
“Sometimes, what would be best for our performance on the water is not necessarily how I’d treat Steph, my best friend,” Shea said.
It helps, Shea said, that they’re both from the Great Lakes region in a sport largely dominated by people from the East and West Coast. Of the 23 sailors on the U.S. Olympic team, only three hail from the Midwest.
“We share a lot of the same values,” Shea said. “We both like spending time with our families, nesting and baking. I’m not saying these are strictly Midwestern things, but we both appreciate some good sweet corn and some Culver’s when we’re home,” she said.
Roble grew up sailing scows and dinghies on Lake Beulah, located about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
Shea, meanwhile, spent her childhood sailing Lake Michigan with her family on her grandfather’s boat. Her grandfather was Great Lakes legend John Nedeau, who competed in the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac a record 66 times. He won the competition on his 63rd attempt in 2011 with Shea as a member of his crew.
“He loved being on the water and loved racing,” Shea said. “He helped me fall in love with all aspects of the sailing world and I felt really lucky to share that with him.”
Shea participated in the Olympic trials in 2008, beginning a 13-year quest to qualify for the Games. She spent much of that time either sailing with or competing against Roble. In the fall of 2016, they teamed up again for the Tokyo 2020 campaign.
The pair sails a 49er FX, a high-performance skiff considered to be the most physically challenging boat on the Olympic program because of its unstable platform. Together they have finished fifth at the 2018 European Championships, third at the World Cup Series Genoa and third at the 2020 49er FX World Championship.
“It’s really cool to share this journey together,” Shea said. “We trust each other and we have fun together.”
The pair has a day off Thursday, during which they plan to do some work on their boat and spend some time with the team’s physical therapist. Roble may do some yoga to relieve stress, while Shea plans to work on a puzzle.
The competition resumes Friday at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour, located in a seaside village about 30 miles south of Tokyo.
“Our mentality is that we’re treating this like any other regatta,” Shea said. “But there are some things that are unique about it.”