If there's such a thing as an average Olympian, it probably isn't Marion Lepert. America's premier female windsurfer has dedicated much of her life to a sport which she describes as like "playing chess while running a marathon."
Since she was 11 years old, Lepert has been racing her board under sail number 143, a digit that was chosen without her knowledge but has come to define her career. With this number, she's posted top-10 performances at international regattas, frequently contended for the top spot at youth events and, most recently, qualified for the 31st Olympic Games.
Lepert's path hasn't been straightforward, and her progress has been anything but incremental. By clearing each obstacle, however, she's gained an impressive level of mastery in a sport that has not often been known for having strong American competitors.
"This last year has been absolutely incredible for me in terms of improvements I’ve made ... Our trials were in January and March of this year, and it worked out."
A family business
The elite windsurfing community in the United States is a bit of an exclusive unit. Most Americans learn to race on more traditional types of boats, like the Laser and the 420, and, as a result, the competitive landscape within the country generally emphasizes these classes above of the high-performance windsurf board.
For Lepert and many other junior windsurfers, the inspiration to try out their sport actually came from abroad. Lepert spent her early years in France and has considerable family ties to the country, where the sport is quite popular as a form of recreation.
"For most people in the U.S., if you ask them how they got into windsurfing, they say their dad. When I was 8, my dad offered to let me try windsurfing, because it’s something he did when he was in college in France. I [tried it], and I absolutely loved it. I’ve been doing it ever since."
Lepert quickly mastered the basics of this new activity, and eventually decided to try things out on the next level. When she was 11, she joined up with a small racing fleet that windsurfed by the entrance to San Francisco Bay, an area infamous for providing harsh wind conditions to even the most seasoned sailors.
"There a group of 10 to 15 guys – middle-aged men – who would race every other Friday right by the Golden Gate ... I definitely was way too small to hold down my board in the waves and the wind compared to these guys. But it was so much fun, and I would come back every other Friday to do it."
The difficult conditions forced Lepert to learn fast, and, by 2009, she was already beginning to outgrow the local windsurfing community. Without a clear next step in domestic competition, Lepert began to travel to Europe to compete against more people her age and fine-tune her racing skills.
"There [would be] 50 or 60 kids on the [start] line. It’s just a whole other kind of adrenaline. Ever since I’ve been doing two or three international events a year."
Road to the top
Being one of the few Americans with the motivation and skills to compete against international competition, the Olympics were less of a huge jump for her and more like the next step in her progression.
Windsurfing is more of an amalgamation of different disciplines than it is a cohesive sport, with different sails and boards being used in events that each fall somewhere on the spectrum between conventional surfing and conventional sailing. Lepert learned to windsurf in the formula discipline – which most closely mirrors sailing with its long, open courses – and using the Techno 193 board, the junior version of the Olympic RS:X.
From this point, getting onto the Olympic path was as much of a challenge that she'd grow into as it was something she would need to learn in its own right.
"Traditionally, Olympic windsurfers start on the youth board and then graduate to the senior board, and then a couple years later might start an Olympic campaign. I had a positive finish on the youth board – I finished in the top three at [the 2011 under-17 world championships] – so I was super pumped to start [in the Olympic class.]"
At the same time as she was making this jump, Lepert's life was going through another transition – her high school graduation and enrollment in college. When she was admitted to Stanford in 2013, Lepert jumped at the opportunity, even if it meant putting windsurfing on the back burner while she pursued life as a full-time student.
"2013 was when I first stepped foot on [the Olympic board]. But 2013 was also the beginning of my freshman year at Stanford, and I was equally pumped [for that]. I didn’t want my aspirations for windsurfing to prevent me from enjoying Stanford [for] what it is. So I decided that I would try to do both as much as I could."
After arriving on campus, Lepert joined the sailing team and took the first steps toward a degree in mechanical engineering. For someone as seasoned on the water as Lepert, sailing was actually quite difficult, as she had almost no experience in the slower collegiate racing vessels and wasn't as familiar with the immense tactical considerations that they required.
Lepert developed considerably on the team, but eventually realized it wasn't making her as much of a better windsurfer as she hoped. She quit the team after six months, doubling down on her preferred class and absolving to hone her strategic understanding of the sport while practicing directly on her board.
"It’s quite unusual, because a lot of people in Europe originally started in dinghies and Optimists [a small, one-person boat popular widely sailed in Florida and on the East Coast], and then kind of saw windsurfing as this cool other thing to do and then changed to windsurfing. But I consider myself a pure windsurfer."
From student to athlete
By June of her sophomore year, Lepert had decided to go all-in on a campaign for Rio 2016. She opted to take a year off from school to practice full-time, optimizing her fitness and technique in order to compete with the best opponents from around the world.
Already one of the "five or six" American windsurfers on the international circuit, Lepert mostly had to beat out one other elite competitor in order to become the U.S. representative in the games. Unfortunately, her efforts hit a snag when she didn't do as well as expected at the Sailing World Cup Miami, falling to 19th and finishing two places behind another American, 35-year-old Farrah Hall.
Lepert had just five weeks to turn around her on-the-water performance and move ahead in the second leg of the U.S. Olympic qualifier, the Trofeo S.A.R. Princesa Sofia Regata in Palma de Mallorca.
"Those five weeks I will remember for the rest of my life. Every hour that I didn’t have on the water, I would have my coach on Skype or be on video trying to figure out what I could do to fix my problems."
Lepert's effort paid off, and she ended up qualifying with relative ease after breaking the top-10 in Spain. "Since then I’ve kind of kept the same mentality, that I have a lot of things to work on and not very much time. I do feel kind of stressed sometimes and it doesn’t come so easy, but the excitement of going to the Olympics is definitely carrying me through."
Even with more than a full year to race and practice full-time, Lepert's campaign started out later than many of her competitors. To make up for lost time, she's had to make compromises, often finding creative ways to help accelerate the pace of her improvement.
Lepert spends between three and four hours on the water during her practice sessions, which occur on five or six days of each week. She often speed tests with teams from France and Mexico, comparing her progress with theirs to better contextualize how she's doing.
When she's not on the water, Lepert spends a lot of her time watching film and otherwise finding ways to make her training sessions as effective as they can be. Since conditions can be so variable, each moment for Lepert is intense, as she has to plan and execute her sessions almost simultaneously based on how the wind looks on any particular day.
"I’m trying to train as much as possible into what those conditions will be like, so whether I am in Rio or in another place in the world, we spend a lot of time behind our computers trying to look at forecasts and deciding when to go out on the water."
Flying over hurdles
One of the ways in which Lepert has gained an advantage over her competitors, she thinks, comes from her background in the sciences. While watching video of her form, Lepert frequently uses her knowledge of physics to understand and visualize what she could be doing better.
"Some might say it’s a strength and some might say it’s a weakness, because a lot of the windsurfers on the circuit do it a lot more intuitively via feeling, but I really [like to] break it down [with physics]. I’ve created my own simulations to kind of figure out the numbers behind it and get an idea as to which positions are better. It’s also a reason why I['ve enjoyed] my campaign so much; it’s been kind of a scientific project for me."
Rio's sailing venue has presented Lepert with its own set of unique set challenges, notably headlined by a bay that is contaminated by sewage and trash. Lepert admits to having been "grossed [out]" by the bay, but doesn't think she's been too affected by the less-than-ideal conditions.
"I’ve been lucky enough to never have been sick from it, so realistically, it has not that impossible to deal with. For me, I feel like everybody has to sail on the water, so I’m not at a disadvantage due to it."
As she approaches the 60-day mark before the beginning of the games, Lepert hasn't yet considered what lies for her beyond the Olympics. She knows that she'll return for her junior year of college, but her racing future will largely be determined by her results and the other opportunities she gets when September rolls around.
For now, the one thing that is certain is that, come August, USA-143 will be out on the water yet again attempting to cross the finish line first.
"I definitely know that I will take my education seriously and graduate without putting that in jeopardy because I want to do Tokyo. But I never like to close doors."
"I’m [just] going to keep windsurfing and see where it takes me."
Contact Andrew Mather at amather 'at' stanford.edu.