July 20, 2008 –The Virgin Islands will compete in the 2008 Olympics at Beijing in August in the person of a 20-year-old sailor who started earning his stripes on Pillsbury Sound between St. Thomas and St. John.
It's a dream Thomas Barrows has held for most of his young life, since he first took the tiller at 8 years old. The 2006 Antilles School graduate is now in Nieupoort, Belgium, competing in the 2008 Laser and Radial European Championship.
"Marine Report" host and longtime local racer Wally Bostwick is one who has followed Barrows' career for years. "When you see all the little kids at the Scotia Optimist regatta, you want to see them succeed," Bostwick exclaimed, "but the Olympics — wow!"
Barrows is taking the honor in stride, sort of. As it turns out, he was a little surprised to find himself in the competition, since he didn't get a slot in the initial Olympics competition in Portugal last year. He was later awarded a wild card slot.
The Olympics committee gives out a few wild cards to spread the competition around. Thomas is one of 42 entrants in the Men's One Person Dinghy-Laser class.
Speaking from Belgium this week, Barrows says, "I didn't find out I'd gotten a slot until June 28th. I'd already planned my summer out so it wasn't like a huge focus. I wasn't anticipating getting to go."
Barrows is making a valiant effort to be lucid, and it's obvious. And touching. It's 1 a.m. in Belgium, and 7 p.m. in St. Thomas.
"Tomorrow is the sixth day of the Laser championships," he says, indicating an early time for tumbling out of bed and into a sailboat.
Nonetheless, Barrows perseveres. He says he inherited a love of the sea from his parents, who lived partly on their sailboat when he was growing up. "I loved cruising," he says. "When I was seven, my parents signed me up for classes at the St. Thomas Yacht Club, and after I learned the basics, I really wanted to race.
"A year later, I sailed in my first regatta, the Scotiabank Optimist, and from then on, it's been a huge part of my life."
Barrows began traveling shortly after that. "Summers, I used to spend at Pleon Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts," he says. "When I switched from Optimists to Lasers I had some really great coaches, and it made the transition a lot easier, and let me get better faster. And we could drive to all the regattas, instead of flying up from St. Thomas."
He continues, "At Marblehead, I had a chance to sail in different conditions, visit different places and compete on 70-boat start lines, first in Opti's and then Lasers. You can't do that at home."
Graduating from Optimists to Lasers is a major transition for a young sailor. An Optimist is a small, single-crew sailing dinghy for youngsters up to age 15. The International Laser Class sailboat is a one-design boat measuring 13 feet long. It has been chosen as the Men's Olympic Class boat since 1996.
Barrows now continues his sailing career at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he will be a junior this fall. He studies weekdays, majoring in sociology, and weekends he sails the collegiate regatta circuit in New England and sometimes in places as distant as Seattle, where he won the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Men's Single-handed Championship in November 2007.
No matter the late hour, Barrows perks up talking about the next few weeks. "I'm really curious to see what China is all about," he says, "and the sailing will be a good learning experience. I'll learn as much as I can from the top competitors, especially in terms of how they go about their preparation. It'll give me a better chance of doing really well in 2012." He has his eye on the London Olympics that year.
When he gets to China, Barrows may well face an unexpected environmental challenge: algae. Aside from the smog Beijing is trying to combat, the coastline of Quindao Sea where he will sail has been inundated with a green mass called "the blob" by those working on cleaning it up.
More than 10,000 people and 1,200 vessels are involved along the coastline in Shandong province, according to BBC News online. It's predicted to be cleaned up in time for the Laser racing from August 9 to August 23.
Barrows says, "It's been so busy I haven't had time to think about it. Hopefully, it'll be taken care of by the time we start racing."
The return to Yale will be a new challenge. "School starts August 27th," he says, "so I'm going straight from China to New Haven."
As for the future, Barrows says he plans to take a couple years off after graduation. "After school, I'll do a campaign for 2012 and just sail for the next two years. It's been a little hectic, balancing school and trying to find time for everything."
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