There was a time when Diane Burton did not sail -- but that was 30 years ago, and in the years since, boats and sailing have become her preferred pursuit. Big boats. Medium boats. Small boats that surge onto a plane and almost fly in 15 knots of wind.
Tomorrow, in a slipper of a boat called the Europe Dinghy, Burton, 37, begins the final leg of a race for a chance to compete for the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
The trials for the U.S. Olympic sailing team in Corona del Mar, Calif., also mark the end of a four-year developmental program for female sailors, who, before 1989, had virtually no racing experience in the Europe Class (11 feet, 75 square feet sail area, 100 pounds all up).
In many respects, Burton's performance in the trials will be a gauge of how well that program has worked. Burton, a naval architect in the Navy from Annapolis, and Courtnay Becker of Rye, N.Y., are the only sailors who have been with the program since its beginning.
Burton is ranked No. 3 in the country (No. 7 in the world) behind Becker and Julia Trotman of Syosset, N.Y.
Twenty women will compete in the 10-race trials. One will be selected to represent the United States at Barcelona. Burton said she thinks her chances are "real good."
"I feel fortunate to be ranked third in a way because I have everything to gain and nothing to lose," Burton said earlier this week by phone from Newport, Calif. "I can go out and attack people. . . . I don't think the first and second people are too far away. It is just a matter of skill."
The Europe Class will be in the Olympics for the first time. "As far as the Americans go, it is very new to them," said Karen Lambert, a close friend of Burton's who has followed the development of the class in the United States. "In the beginning, the Americans were in the back of the fleet. Now they are leading the fleet."
They are at least close to the top of the fleet.
In the Women's World Championships in Long Beach, Calif., last September, Burton was the top American finisher, taking the bronze medal in a field of 40 representing 21 countries.
"It was a very nice situation for me," Burton said. "All my European friends were there, all those who have been beating up on me in their home waters.
"It was a nice time for me to be able to show them what Americans can do in American waters. I really feel that boosted my image."
Burton may have an advantage over the other competitors -- on the water and off.
She is a hydrodynamicist, and hydrodynamics and aerodynamics are very similar. Putting the two together gives an understanding of why a boat moves through the water and why the shape of a sail, or foil, increases or retards the efficiency of that movement.
Working with Greg Fisher of the North Sails one-design loft in Columbus, Ohio, Burton says they have made a breakthrough in sail design for the Europe that is now being used by virtually every American in the class.
For her physical skills, Burton has hired Tom Lihman, a top-flight sailor from Florida as her coach.
Burton said Lihman has made her take a harder look at herself, physically and mentally.
"That is that area that I have found the most rewarding, and probably what I have been working the hardest on, mental preparation," Burton said. "Planning for the regatta, getting in a good state of mind -- positive thinking, concentration. Knowing before you even start the race that you are fast, that your tactics are good. Reinforcing yourself."
Burton has been a student of the sport since she started sailing at 7 on Lake Michigan in a pram her parents owned. Her first race was from Port Huron, Mich., to Mackinac, Mich., on a 40-footer. But better things have been coming in smaller packages since.
"In this boat [the Europe], you really have to get rigs that are specifically built for you -- your height, weight, hiking ability and strength," Burton said. "It becomes a very personalized racer, and it has taken me these past three years to get all that perfected for what my abilities are."
In those three years, Burton has learned to be adaptable, to be able to adjust to sailing gear that may not be perfect for the conditions at hand.
"I think that when I first got in this class, I kept thinking about the equipment," she said. "Well, you have to get over that and just go sailing.
"Don't look at what you have on the boat, look around you and make the best of each moment, each second, each quarter of a second."
Burton, who has been on leave from the Navy since mid-December, has put her career on hold and chosen to "duke it out" with a field in which the majority of competitors are more than 10 years her junior.
"It has been a long goal for me to show that I can be best at something," Burton said. "Sailing is where I can do it, and going for the Olympics is where you can show how good you are. Win a gold medal, you are the best."