O.C. student trying to sail in Olympics

This week, Stewart McCaleb is competing in a qualifying regatta for a shot to represent the U.S. in sailing which could lead to a chance to participate in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

O.C. student trying to sail in Olympics
Stewart McCaleb has been sailing competitively since he was 8 years old. Courtesy photo.

Stewart McCaleb was eight years old when he competed in his first sailboat race. 

It was not a calm day on the ocean, Stewart, now 16, recounted in a recent Zoom interview.

“I remember my first regatta. It was raining and super windy and I was scared and crying and the coach had to save me,” Stewart recalled. He was alone and afloat off the coast of Long Beach in a downpour, his boat filling up with water.

“I remember I was just like, ‘What am I doing here sailing in the rain?’ No one is forcing me to be here.” 

“I went to ask [him] a bunch of times if [he] wanted to quit and he said no,” John McCaleb, Stewart’s father, said of that day. 

When asked what got him through that race and back on a sailboat for his next regatta, Stewart responded: “Perseverance.” Now, that perseverance has propelled the sophomore at Los Alamitos High School to advance to the highest levels of the sport.

This week, Stewart is competing in a qualifying regatta for a shot to represent the United States in sailing which could lead to a spot in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

There are nearly a dozen sailing events in the upcoming summer Olympics. Each one has its own qualifying process. Stewart competes in the Men’s One Person Dinghy event on a sailboat known as a Laser or ILCA-7 which measures roughly 14 feet. 

During the qualifying competition in Florida that starts this weekend, Stewart is set to sail against more than 30 other hopefuls vying for a single spot on Team USA in his event. The regatta features athletes competing in two races a day for eight days. Each race lasts about 45 minutes, according to Stewart. He said races can be physically exhausting depending on the wind and waves.

“It’s definitely intense,” Stewart said. “You’re really tense when you try to keep that position as much as you can.”

Stewart McCaleb, 16, is trying to represent the U.S. in sailing in the 2024 Olympics. Courtesy photo.

To make it to this point, Stewart has competed in numerous regattas across the country. In addition to traveling, he maintains an intense practice schedule. A competitor with the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club, Stewart is on his boat six days a week for two to three hours each training session. He also works out before school and watches videos to improve his technique.

Stewart’s father got into sailing recreationally while in college on the East Coast. Years later as parent – just for fun – he signed his son up for a sailing summer camp. Stewart has been out on the water ever since.

"I never thought we would have done anything like this four years ago. This is so far out of what I thought was in our future," McCaleb said.

The ocean is a setting Stewart said he has grown to love. He describes Long Beach as an ideal location for his sport due to its consistent and often favorable wind conditions. But it’s not always smooth sailing. 

“There are those experiences where you're down and you just have to fight,” Stewart said of some of his more challenging moments competing. “You just have to fight the fear. It may be super windy, I may be super scared, right, but you know other people are fine. Everybody’s nervous. If everybody's nervous that means whoever’s mentally strong enough to keep going is really who succeeds.”

“When he first started [sailing] he liked it because it got him away from adults telling him what to do,” McCaleb said with a smile. He later added that the independent problem-solving sailing requires has given Stewart “a lot of confidence."

In addition to his solo sailing, Stewart is part of a sailing club at Los Alamitos High School. Before he became a Griffin, Stewart attended Oak and McAuliffe Middle Schools and McGaugh Elementary all in the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

When asked how he balances school and being an Olympic hopeful, he credits a manageable routine that he strives to maintain. 

“I’ve just tried to make plans for myself that I can stay consistent with; not trying to overwork myself, while still having time for schoolwork,” he said. “There's a lot of hard work, but once the work pays off, it definitely shows and you get that sense of gratitude.” When he’s not sailing or doing homework, Stewart participates in Boy Scouts and enjoys hiking.

If Stewart wins the sole spot to represent the U.S. in his sailing event, he will still have to compete in a last chance regatta against international athletes to make it into the 2024 Olympics. 

“I’m definitely nervous,” Stewart said about participating in the qualifier. But he said he views this as more of a learning experience where he’ll be out on the ocean with some of the best athletes in his sport. “There's no real set of expectations for me because you know, I'm probably going to be one of the youngest competitors.”

Even if he doesn’t qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Stewart is already looking ahead. He hopes to compete on his home surf in the 2028 Olympics that will take place in Los Angeles. 

“There's the four year cycle so I have another four years after this one to really get my best game on for L.A. 2028."

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