With the wind in his sails and full speed ahead, Lake Forest Sailing Center’s Head Coach Hunter Ratliff has his sights set on London, where he hopes to compete for a U.S. victory in the 2012 Olympic Games.
As Hunter sits on a park bench overlooking Lake Michigan near the boating docks of Lake Forest Beach, he recounts his first sailing experience as a young boy at Macatawa Bay Yacht Club in Michigan. “To be quite honest, I didn’t enjoy it initially. I wanted to go a lot faster, so I was more interested in powerboats.”
But growing up within a family of avid sailors, Hunter was strongly encouraged to spend his summer sailing in Macatawa Bay. He remembers his first race vividly; “I competed in a Saturday race at the yacht club, and it was a disaster. My dad ended up hopping in the boat with me and sailing in it for the last race.” But his father’s persistence paid off. “After that, I kind of figured my way around the course,” he says. “By the end of the summer, I was hooked. I loved it.”
Hunter continued to sail throughout his youth, spending his summers competing in races at the Chicago Yacht Club. He sailed as much as he could during his time at Marquette University, where he pursued theatre, his other true passion.
For the past few years, Hunter has steered his attention away from the arts and toward Olympic gold. He notes, “If ’12 doesn’t happen, then it’s onto ’16,” describing the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro as “the ultimate goal.”
Hunter will spend the next few months preparing to compete amongst 80 other men’s teams at the International Sailing World Championships in Perth, Australia, the final event in the Olympic Section. As one of just three teams set to represent the U.S. in Perth, Hunter will compete against seasoned Olympians who have already sailed in many trials. “I’m not the favorite,” he says modestly. “But I’ll be there.” Hunter hopes to walk away with first place, and thus qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“As they say, there’s no substitute for time on the water,” Hunter says, stating the sailing world’s adaptation of the old phrase “practice makes perfect.” As head sailing coach for the past 11 years, he has passed on many words of advice to the members of the team. During this time, Hunter has seen the Lake Forest Sailing Team grow in size from a handful of four students when he started coaching, to the team of 34 members that he leads now.
Many of the students that Hunter first taught now work for him at the sailing center. “It’s always fun when they first get their kids and they are so excited,” he says, “Then, afterwards, they come to me and say, ‘Hunter, I am so sorry for putting you through this.’ I just say, ‘It all comes around,’” he says laughing. “It’s neat to see them mature and turn into young adults.”
Hunter’s students at the Lake Forest Sailing Center are given a world-class learning experience. Not only is their teacher one of the best sailors in the nation, but he also describes Lake Forest Beach’s beautiful facility as on par with some of the best that he has seen. “A lot of my coaches come down here and say, ‘Wow, this is the best kept secret in the world,’” he says. From the amount of equipment and launching facilities available to the minimal boat traffic, parents can take comfort that their children are in one of the best environments to learn to sail.
Of the many words of advice that Hunter gives his students, “The greatest piece of advice is you can’t skip any steps.” His journey to the Olympic Trials has been a long one, but his determination has gotten him to this point in his career. “The reason that most people fail rather than succeed is that they sacrifice what they want most for what they want most at the time,” he says. But Hunter forges on, heeding his own advice “not to be afraid of failure.” And with a strong backing from his family and the North Shore community, this rising star is poised to succeed.
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