Farrah Hall touched her dream. Then she screamed. She danced. She took pictures. She celebrated with her mom on the phone. Hall will never forget the feeling, short-lived as it was.
For 90 minutes, Hall, a 26-year-old windsurfer from Annapolis, had won the right to represent the United States at the Summer Olympics. She finished first at the RS:X team-selection trials in Long Beach, Calif., in October.
"It was just amazing. It's what I'd worked so hard for," she says.
After the race, though, Hall was called out of the shower, brought into a room and told that another windsurfer had protested the race results. The jury heard the claim and ruled that the other competitor - not Hall - would represent the United States in Beijing.
Case closed. Race over. Dreams dashed. Right? Perhaps. If this were anyone but Hall.
The jury and the officials from US Sailing might not have known this when they made their initial ruling, but it's a lot harder than that to keep Hall off her board. We're talking about someone who has lived and slept in her 1997 van. Who has stayed in hostels in Europe. Slept in a park in Florida. Even spent a night sleeping in the long zip-up bag that stores her board. All so she could windsurf. You have to understand windsurfers a bit. Hall describes her breed as "fully possessed individuals who stop at nothing to be on the water."
Ever since the US Sailing jury took away her victory at the trials, Hall has spent every day fighting the ruling and trying to earn back her spot on the Olympic team. Hope is not lost, and she's confident she'll ultimately feel the winds of China pushing her sail. But, for now, she must build the best case possible.
Hall filed for arbitration, and her case will likely be heard in March or April.
At issue is the final race of the eight-day, 16-race regatta in Long Beach. Hall had led for the early part of the competition, but when the wind died, Nancy Rios, a lighter windsurfer from Cocoa Beach, Fla., reeled off six victories in a row and took a narrow lead into the final day of racing. Winning the finale wouldn't be enough to punch Hall's ticket to Beijing. If Rios managed at least a third-place finish, Hall's Olympic dream would be deferred.
In that last race, Hall finished about five minutes ahead of everyone else, and Rios was fourth across the finish line. The results were posted on the US Sailing Web site, and Hall's family and friends all over the country joined in the celebration, including her family in Annapolis and her friends at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's City.
Her spirits still bursting with excitement, Hall was in the shower when she was pulled out and told that the jury was considering a "redress" protest from a visibly upset Rios, who claimed a crash at the beginning of the race had unfairly affected the ending. A third racer tried to cross both Hall and Rios, first hitting Hall and then colliding with Rios. Hall recovered, but Rios showed the jury a gash in her sail, 8-10 inches long.
Two of the three jury members had witnessed the collision at the start of the race, and the full jury inspected the tear in Rios' sail. They awarded Rios a second-place finish in the final race - her average finish from the previous races - which kept her atop the overall standings and meant she would be the sole U.S. female windsurfer at the Olympics.
Hall contends the jury reached its decision without questioning other participants and without anyone having witnessed the tear on the water or observed how the tear actually affected Rios' race.
In addition to failing to fully investigate Rios' claim, Hall says, she wasn't properly told of her rights or afforded due process, and US Sailing failed to properly adhere to U.S. Olympic Committee rules.
At a meeting after the race, Hall says she was led to believe she had no recourse. US Sailing officials deny this and say it's a competitor's responsibility to know the rules and Hall could have filed for a redress of her own, questioning the jury's decision. But that redress would've been heard by the same jury that just ruled against her, and it needed to be filed almost immediately.
"It was devastating. I'd worked so hard for that moment - and I had that moment for an hour and a half," Hall says. "All my energy left my body. There was nothing left inside me."
For Hall, who graduated from Broadneck High, it was a lifetime dream that was won on the water and lost in a meeting room. Since she was a young girl, Hall has had Olympic aspirations.
She tried swimming, running, triathlon. But when she discovered windsurfing as a teenager, Hall was immediately hooked. At St. Mary's, she started a windsurfing club, and though she graduated with a biology degree, she decided she would instead follow the wind.
"You get addicted so quickly," Hall says. "It's the speed, it's the power, it's feeling in complete control."