Leaning off the edge of the boat, nearly perpendicular to the open water inches below, Maggie Shea’s body slices through the air at 25 mph.
The wind burns. The sun beats. The waves crash.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Being “at the mercy of the elements” is one of the thrills that has kept Maggie Shea, 32, in the water and on a sailboat since she was a young seafarer in Wilmette.
“I love being on the water, in the water, around water. Like when I’m stressed I take a bath. I just love being in the water,” she said. “I feel like a really bracing, nice feeling when I’m in the water and swimming, so I just don’t mind being soaking wet and cold all day in my wetsuit. That’s my happy place.”
That passion, as well as years of training and a sailor’s pedigree, reached a new peak this year when Shea and her skipper Stephanie Roble qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with their boat, a 49er FX skiff, and will compete in early August.
Having spent most of her youth sailing on Lake Michigan alongside her late grandfather John Nedeau — a Michigan-born and sailing icon who held the record for most number of races to Mackinac sailed in Chicago — Shea quickly fell in love with the water.
Nedeau taught his children how to sail, and they taught their children. Nedeau sailed up until his death in 2016 at Age 85.
From the outset, Shea was “happy being on board.”
“I absolutely loved it,” Shea said. “There are cute photos of my sister and I [on our Grandpa’s boat] and my sister kind of looking tense and nervous and a little anxious about what’s going on, and I’m like swinging outside the life lines, tongue out, don’t care.
She joined the Chicago Yacht Club’s junior sailing program at 12 or 13; though, she always thought of herself as “kind of late to the party.”
Other young sailors were far better, like her childhood rival — and now partner — Stephanie Roble, a junior sailing powerhouse who had been competing as early as 8 years old while winning all sorts of titles and trophies.
Shea was intimidated, but that didn’t last long
“It was this sort of sweet, typical 14-year-old-girl moment where instead of being frenemies and talking behind each other’s backs to being like, ‘Oh, we could be friends actually,’ and we had a blast and did well,” Shea said.
As her skills grew, Shea gave up the traditional high school experiences of parties and prom for sailing.
While it is not a decision she regrets, she didn’t do it alone. Shea credited her high school sailing coach, her teachers at New Trier and, of course, her family.
Throughout her sailing career, Shea has had “lows” — from sustaining injuries to being kicked off teams to breaking up with teammates. When challenges appear, her first phone call always goes to her parents, Mindy and Don Shea.
“I sometimes jokingly blame my parents for giving me an inflated, delusional sense of self,” Shea said. “Anything I said I wanted to do they said, ‘Oh, yeah, you got it. You wanna be president? You can do that. You wanna be on the Supreme Court? You can do that. You want to go to the Olympics? You can do that.’ Like, OK!
“I think kids really swallow that and hold it with them. But when your parents believe in you, and they teach you to believe in yourself it’s really amazing because it has really helped me get through some really tough times.”
With her family in her corner, Shea’s talents rocked the North Shore sailing community.
By the time she hit high school, Shea had set herself apart. Her former high school sailing coach and now brother-in-law Evan Thompson knew she would always be the “star athlete.”
“It was really cool as a coach to watch her not only develop as an athlete but develop mentally [and to] watch her confidence grow and prove to herself that she had what it took to compete at a national level and beyond,” Thompson said.
After graduating high school, Shea’s success continued through her collegiate sailing career at Connecticut College.
But it was more than just in-water success. While at Connecticut, Shea uncovered a deeper meaning to women’s sailing.
“I’d say I grew up a lot in college,” Shea said. “I had a lot to learn in terms of being a competitive athlete. I think this is something that is conditioned into women and girls at a young age is that we get sort of apologetic, and it’s not second nature to be super competitive and take what is ours. That’s not something we really learn as women, as young girls.”
Once Shea started competing in professional co-ed match races, she shed her timidness and honed her “self-esteem, confidence and confrontation skills” to assert herself as a more-than-capable athlete in a “male-dominated” field.
“I have to think I’m physically as big and strong as them even if I’m not,” Shea said.
Shea told The Record that she attributes much of her success to her personal growth. She found out what it means to be a female sailor by experiencing the challenges that come with it.
In March 2019, a strategic review on the sport’s gender balance by the World Sailing Trust — a United Kingdom charity established to “support sailing in all its forms” — revealed that out of 4,529 survey participants from 75 countries 59 percent of women and 14 percent of men experienced gender-based discrimination in their sailing career.
In addition, 80 percent of women and 56 percent of men said they believe that gender balance is a problem in the sport.
To begin addressing its gender imbalance, World Sailing added more roster spots in women’s Olympic Sailing events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and by the 2024 Paris Olympics, there will be gender equality in the number of athletes competing and the number of medals awarded, according to a 2019 New York Times article by Chris Museler.
Despite the social challenges that came with the sport, Shea is committed to sailing.
In college, Shea served as a team captain, skipper and crew member and collected a number of accolades, including honorable mention honors on the All-America team, the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association Sportswoman of the Year award, and the Connecticut College Brooks-Brown Award for “outstanding leadership, scholarship and sportsmanship.”
Before she was out of college, Shea participated in her first Olympic Trials in 2008 to “check out the competition.” She didn’t place, but the opportunity allowed her to assess her performance level.
Upon graduation in 2011 with a degree in political science, Shea united with Roble to form Epic Racing, and the duo entered the 2012 Olympic Trials. They finished in fourth place, one spot shy of qualifying, in the Women’s Match Racing Class.
Shea earned a number of significant titles and awards in the years to come, leading her and Roble to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in February 2020.
This time, they left no doubt, finishing third — racing in a 49er FX sailboat — to punch their ticket to the Summer Games.
But their journey was delayed, as COVID-19 disrupted the world in March 2020, and the Olympics were postponed.
The pandemic could not stop the Roble-Shea team from training, especially with their highly regarded Italian Olympic sailing coach, Giulia Conti, by their side.
“It is not easy to find athletes that have so much passion and put so much effort in what they are doing,” Conti said. “It is truly inspiring for me as a coach and definitely motivates me to give 110 percent all the time for them. I am so proud of our work together, and I am so proud of where our journey took us. These girls truly deserve to represent Team USA at these Olympics. I really hope they will enjoy every single moment of it because it is an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Is a medal in their future?
In the 2019 World sailing championship, the Roble-Shea team finished 13th out of 44 entries, scoring 182 points. By the 2020 World race, they placed third, with a total score of 101 points, an 81-point improvement in one year.
After a year of waiting and training, Shea and Roble are ready.
“No matter how many masks we need to wear, no matter how many crazy COVID tests we need to take, whatever the rules are, we’ll do them because the tight, solid racing on the water, that intensity that comes when everyone’s at the top of their game, everyone’s firing on all cylinders and it’s just game on, COVID can’t affect that,” Shea said. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
The Roble-Shea team will compete in their final Olympic medal race on Monday, Aug. 2. For the complete Olympic sailing schedule and information on how to live stream the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, visit https://olympics.com/tokyo-2020/en/.
Alayne Trinko is an editorial intern who assists the editor-in-chief in reporting hyperlocal news, developing engaging multimedia, and building community trust. Alayne was a staff writer and Focus section editor for The DePaulia, DePaul University’s student-run newspaper. Alayne will be a junior studying journalism this fall and hopes to study abroad to conduct social justice reporting on women’s reproductive health issues in Africa or India in summer 2022. Follow her on Twitter @AlayneTrinko.