By Harry Minium

If the coronavirus pandemic was not raging around the world, Stephanie Roble would be in Tokyo, living out her lifelong dream of representing the United States in the Olympics.

But COVID-19 pushed the Olympics to the summer of 2021, assuming the pandemic is then under control.

Roble, a former Old Dominion University sailing standout, said she and teammate Maggie Shea were relieved when they heard the Olympics had been delayed.

"We want to be able to sail when spectators can be there, when the athletes are really well trained and at their best," Roble said. "We want the atmosphere to be healthy and safe for everyone."

Roble isn't a household name, but is one of ODU's most decorated athletes. She hails from East Troy, Wis., a village just southwest of Milwaukee bordering Lake Beulah. Her parents joined the Lake Beulah Yacht Club and enrolled their daughter in sailing lessons when she was 5. She hardly remembers a time when she wasn't sailing.

The club is a modest facility where most of the upkeep and maintenance is done by volunteers. It's short on luxuries but has outstanding facilities is focused on sailing, not entertaining.

"Traditionally, yacht clubs put money into hiring a staff to care for the club or serve the food," Roble said. "But we have Wednesday night cookouts. We have committees for cleanup in the fall. It's full of people who really believe in the mission of sailing and the community."

By the time she was a teenager, Roble knew she would sail in college. She began researching schools early in high school.

ODU's sailing program is among the nation's elite. The Monarchs have won 14 national championships, including seven under current coach Mitch Brindley, and have produced 10 Olympians, including Roble. ODU's sailing center, located on the Elizabeth River on the west side of campus, is among the nation's best.

Roble had several in-state schools to choose from, but after researching ODU and Brindley she scheduled a visit to Norfolk, nearly 1,000 miles from home.

"I really liked Mitch, his personality and the way he coaches," she said. "And the sailing venue is just fantastic. Going to school with a great coach would help set me up for Olympic sailing. That was a no-brainer for me."

Sailing is one of the oldest collegiate sports. It began informally in the 1890s and more than 230 schools sail under the auspices of the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association. Brindley is president of the ICSA.

While sailing is just as competitive and involves just as much work as many sports, it is not sanctioned by the NCAA, meaning there are no scholarships. Sailors and/or their parents pay all tuition and fees.

Going out of state meant her parents had to dig deeper into their wallets, and Dale and Nancy Roble were happy to do so.

"I'm so grateful that my parents supported me," Roble said. "They've always supported me as I chased my sailing dreams. They knew ODU was the best place for me to be."

Roble had a great career at ODU. She was ODU's MVP as a sophomore, a two-time All-American and team captain as a senior.

After she graduated in 2011, she sailed successfully as a professional for five years, winning a world championship, five national championships and dozens of medals at other events.

In 2014, she was named the U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of Year, the highest award in American sailing, and was honored at a banquet at the New York Yacht Club. The Yachtsman of the Year? Terry Hutchinson, also an ODU graduate.

2014 Rolex Award Ceremony

In 2016, Shea approached by her about becoming teammates and chasing their Olympic goals together.

"The timing was perfect," Roble said. "We've raced with or against each other for 15 years. She's an amazing teammate."

They race in a 49erFX, a sailing craft about 16 feet long that travels at a high rate of speed.

The biggest race of their careers came in February at the 2020 World Championships in Australia, the second of two qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

It was a weeklong regatta that came down to the final event. They were tied with Americans Paris Henken, an Olympic veteran, and Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias, a member of the ODU Sports Hall of Fame and a 2008 Olympic gold medalist who has won four Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year awards.

With strong gusts blowing in several directions, the weather gave Tobias and Henken an advantage because they had a heavier boat.

Roble and Shea fell behind early, but approaching the second and final marker, they made a daring turn that put them in the lead.

At race's end, they knew they finished ahead of Tobias and Henken, but did not know whether they had won by enough points to secure the Olympic bid.

Their coaches were crying, and Roble and Shea weren't sure whether that was good or bad. When they were told they'd won a bronze medal and an Olympic bid, they shed tears, too.

Roble credits much of her success to ODU and Brindley.

"Being a collegiate athlete prepared me for this career," she said. "You really have to balance everything, including your class load, and we race nearly all year. We traveled every weekend. Managing my classes and sailing was hard, but it taught me structure and that's helped me ever since."

Asked what the Olympics meant to her, she paused before answering.

"Going to represent my country in the Olympics has been a lifelong dream for me," she said. "But we're not going to Tokyo just to be Olympians. We're going there to bring back a medal."

Stephanie Roble sailing website

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