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October 16, 2013

Setting sail for the Championship of Champions

Local family looks forward to upcoming yacht races

By Christian Davis
C & G Sports Writer

» click to enlarge «
Tom LaBelle, right, races with his daughter, Alix, on a Laser sailboat. The Rochester Hills residents are racing in the Championship of Champions later this month in South Carolina. Family friend E.J. O’Mara is also on the three-person crew.

Tom LaBelle and his daughter, Alix, have been on the water together racing each other and against other boats before, but never on a stage as big as they’ll face Oct. 25-27 in Columbia, S.C.

The LaBelles, along with family friend E.J. O’Mara, are competing in the US Sailings premier sailing competition, the Championship of Champions.

“This is like the All Stars, and it’s really competitive. We’re certainly going to enjoy ourselves, but it really is competitive,” Tom LaBelle said, adding that former Olympians also compete in this regatta. “You have some really talented people showing up. In some respects, it’s the best of the best.”

Tom LaBelle qualified after winning the Ensign Class A Association US National Championship in Marquette earlier this summer, besting 39 other contestants. His daughter and O’Mara weren’t in that event.

The championship was Tom LaBelle’s third national title, but this is his first run at the Championship of Champions.

The event will feature each team sailing Lightnings. There are 19 races over the three-day event with the crew. The lowest amount of points determines the winner.

“To get that many races in over three days, I would expect they’ll do relatively short races to knock a lot of races out,” Tom LaBelle said, noting that the crews will switch boats after each race. “That’s a way of neutralizing any advantage that one boat or sails are in better condition.

“The key is really to post consistent and good scores. With races that you anticipate being that short, there will be ups and downs, but you still have to post a good score.”

Tom LaBelle added that he’s excited to have his daughter with him. She’s currently a junior at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek and started sailing when she was 8.

“She’s really good in the boat. She’ll play what we call the forward position,” he said, adding that his daughter’s responsibilities include managing the front sail and spinnaker. “E.J. will be in the middle, and then I’ll steer. She’s athletic, she’s strong and she’s young.”

She’s also looking forward to the event.

“I’m really excited to spend time with my dad and E.J. I’m also excited to meet the other sailors. It’s a really big race,” Alix LaBelle said.

Tom LaBelle had the option twice before to race in the Championship of Champions but chose not to because of previous obligations and travel costs.

“There are only so many times in your life you’ll have the opportunity to do it,” he said, adding that the crew’s goal is a top-six finish. “Fortunately, we won (to qualify), and she’s a great age to go. Everything has worked in a good and positive way.”

Tom LaBelle said he enjoys sailing because of the physical and mental nature.

“You have to be in shape, particularly as the boats get smaller. You also have to be smart and very tactful. There are a lot of decisions that end up being made over the course of a race,” he said. “In some respects, it’s a lot like golf. You can take a par five and try and get there in two and make double bogey, or sometimes it’s better to take a 3-wood and 5-iron and leave yourself 130 yards to the green.”

Alix LaBelle said she enjoys being on the water, whether it’s sunny or even a cloudy day with a bit of wind.

“At about the age of 13, I really started to like it. I just realized that it was something different that not a lot of people do,” she said. “Plus, the fact that my dad is pretty good at what he does, so I wanted to get good at it and maybe, one day, I’ll be better than him.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Christian Davis at cdavis@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1062. Twitter Follow Christian on Twitter.