Farrah Hall, a native of Cape St. Claire, Md., graduated from Broadneck High School in 1999 and St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2003. The 40-year-old is competing in women’s RS:X, the current Olympic class of windsurfing, in Tokyo after doing the same at the London Games in 2012.
PressBox: How did you become interested in sailing and windsurfing?
Farrah Hall: I grew up in Cape St. Claire, and it’s a community that has a couple small beaches and some water access. Just because Maryland is such a boaty place, I got started at the Cape St. Claire Community Sailing Program in the summer and I just kind of continued. I was never part of a yacht club. My parents don’t sail. I got started sort of on my own. Also, I got started windsurfing on my own because one of my friends had an old windsurfer and we used to go mess around with it on the water. That was when I was an older teenager. I just kind of kept going from there.
PB: What are your favorite memories from growing up in the Annapolis area? What sports did you play?
FH: I did every single public school sport, basically. I did soccer, lacrosse, basketball and then after my first year of high school I started to get into cross country and track and field, so I did three years of that. I also swam for the Navy Juniors when I was a kid, so kind of a little bit of everything. Sailing was just something fun to do on the side, but I always loved the water, so I was hanging out at the beach and just playing around down there. My parents bought a little 14-foot sailboat, so I would go out on that and just have fun by myself or with friends — kind of a nice way to grow up. I think a lot of people growing up in Cape St. Claire are the same. They’re just kind of boaty and they do a lot of things on the water, kind of like a lot of Marylanders, I guess.
PB: Who were your big influences as an athlete growing up?
FH: My biggest influence was my high school track and field coach. He still teaches at Broadneck. He doesn’t coach anymore. His name is Dana Dobbs. He’s deaf. He used to be nationally ranked in decathlon. He was just a really dynamic and enthusiastic and inspiring person. He pushed me. He got me to understand how to train hard and how to train more scientifically. [Those] were my first steps to becoming an elite athlete.
PB: How did you get into sailing more at St. Mary’s College of Maryland after graduating from Broadneck in 1999?
FH: I chose St. Mary’s sort of on a whim. I hadn’t even really visited it, but I knew it was on the water and it was similar to how I grew up and that sort of thing. That’s what I was looking for along with a good biology program, which is my degree. I got down there and checked out the sailing team but actually I had way too much coursework with biology to be able to do the sailing team. I still had an old set of windsurfing equipment, so I would just go out and windsurf and have fun. After my freshman year, I worked for a windsurfing shop on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. That’s where I learned more about windsurfing, so I decided to start a windsurfing club. I went around on Martha’s Vineyard and I found some old equipment and I brought it down in my father’s minivan.
With that equipment [I] just started teaching how to windsurf and eventually founded the club. We went out and got more … equipment. We started organizing social learn-to-windsurf events once or twice a week, plus a biannual trip to Cape Hatteras in fall and spring break. The club kind of snowballed and we grew a lot. We got some new equipment. We got a shed. Eventually, it attracted the interest of an Olympian windsurfer whose name was Mike Gebhardt. He’s a double medalist and he’s competed in [five] Games. He was doing a clinic in Annapolis, so he decided to come down with a friend and see what the club was all about. That was kind of my first exposure to windsurfing as an Olympic sport. It was something … I hadn’t thought about at the time.
PB: When did competing in the Olympics become a goal for you?
FH: I don’t know if there was ever a moment, but there’s always this sense that this was so different from how I was raised and how I expected my life to turn out for the first 21 years of my life, basically. So I just felt like if I really wanted to do it then I really just had to push myself really, really hard. Otherwise, I would never be able to do it. So that’s what I did. “OK, the other sailors are doing that, so that’s what I have to do, too.” I would just see what it took to get there. Even if I knew I didn’t have enough money to come home or whatever, I just said, ‘Well, I’ll just keep fundraising while I’m in Europe, try to save money the best that I can and take as many opportunities as I can.’ The windsurfing community is very welcoming, and I think I was lucky to meet a lot good people at a lot of good moments in my career that kind of helped me get to the next step even if I was doing it a little bit differently and a little bit later in life than most of the athletes.
PB: What are your favorite memories of competing in the 2012 Summer Games in London?
FH: Going to the Olympics in London was really magical. That particular Olympics especially was really amazing, just like the experience and the energy of British people and having kids be so excited to see you and being able to be at a sailing venue and see the spectators on the cliff watching you. It was just really, really cool and exciting, really special moment. … Mostly my memories are kind of everything leading up to the Games. The Games are obviously an exciting moment, but most of our time is spent training. I think just the relationships that you make [are memorable].
I remember running on the cliffs and doing hill training on these huge hills [on the Isle of Portland] next to the sailing center with my coach. Visiting the area, getting to sail outside of the harbor in big waves and seeing all the countryside of Southwest England is just super amazing. It’s beautiful. I still have friends that I made outside of sailing as well from [the] Weymouth and Portland area. It’s really cool to be able to check in with them every once in a while. It’s really mostly about the relationships that you make and the things that you experience and the memory of how hard you’re training and how cold it was and the one day where you’re just training in horrible, miserable weather all the time. But then you can say, ‘Oh, hey, I did it and it made me a better person and I got to participate in this sports journey that not too many of us get to go through.’
PB: How would you explain windsurfing to someone who’s watching it for the first time this summer?
FH: First you have to understand racing sailboats. It’s like a game of chess, so you have your interactions with the other boats. You’re against the individual boats, against the fleet of all the boats and then against the wind, so that’s your strategy. What is the wind doing? And then with windsurfing, you have a very physical side because it’s a really dynamic sport and we do a lot of pumping, which is basically like making our own wind. If you have light wind, you pump the sail really, really hard. It makes you accelerate, but you have to do it the whole race. Basically, we’re an endurance sport. It’s like if you’re playing chess and you’re redlining your heart rate, basically. It’s a pretty interesting sport.
And then we have two different sets of techniques, so we have planing and high wind technique and then a low wind technique. They overlap a little bit, but it’s really like a complicated, technical skill set as well. And then we have an equipment side, so the other side is testing and tuning equipment and that takes a very long time. It’s very expensive because it’s supposed to be a one-design class, which means everyone’s racing on the same equipment. But all the equipment is different because it comes out of the factory a little bit different, so sometimes you can get a really fast board or you can get a board that is a total dud. All the boards have a different shape. All the fins have a little bit of a different shape. The masts on the sails are all a little bit different. You really have to pick a set that suits you for what you can afford in your budget.
PB: What has the pandemic brought in terms of preparing for the Olympics?
FH: The pandemic really threw me for a loop, actually. Luckily, I had already qualified for the Games and then the pandemic hit. So basically as soon as our qualifying series were over, I was back in France and confined. We had a confinement for two months. Basically, I couldn’t sail until the end of the confinement when they finally said, “OK, it’s stupid that we’re not allowing water sports.” That was sort of a big blow — to go from a lot of training and preparation to basically nothing. I just had to shift everything around. I started a new physical program with a trainer in France. She trains the youth national team. I just worked out at home and did a ton of gardening and got to focus on stuff around the house. [It] turned into a nice break, but I still have to deal with this change in Olympic equipment. I didn’t really know what to do, but it’s like, ‘I don’t want to fall behind the curve with the Olympic equipment.’
So I started imagining projects I could do to try to find sponsorship. I just worked and worked and worked every single day. I was getting up at like 5:30 [a.m.] and sending emails to potential sponsors and organizing projects and doing huge workouts and also gardening and just trying to do things around the house to help my husband. He was renovating the house and I was working. I put in a huge effort over a number of months. I turned over all my sponsorship. I didn’t have much sponsorship for two years before this, so I ended up finding a sponsor with Defense Industry. They’re based in Crystal City and they’re a defense contractor called STS International. They do mission support. They do all kinds of electronics and computer systems and drones and things like that.
PB: What are you looking forward to the most at the Toyko Games?
FH: Seeing my Japanese friends. I love Japan. I think the culture is so cool, and I love Japanese food. I love how organized everything is. I love that it’s super clean. I love that people are polite. I think the organization does a really nice job organizing the events and making sure everything’s going on schedule. They’re very detail-oriented, so almost nothing goes wrong. I’m looking forward to participating in another Olympics — the COVID Olympics. We don’t know how it’s going to shake out because as of now there’s no public, so staff has been reduced on the teams. The athletes have to fly in right before their events and leave after the event. There’s going to be zero tourism, which is a shame because tourism in Japan is really amazing. We’re going to be either in the athlete village or at the sailing venue. There’s going to be no walking around and doing your own thing. You’re either going to be in the village, in the bus or at the venue.
Photo Credit: Pedro Martinez/SAILING ENERGY
Originally published June 16, 2021