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St. Petersburg sailor plots course for gold

Though not favored to take first place, Olympic rookie Mark Mendelblatt knows anything can happen in sailing.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 11, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Forgive the folks at the Mendelblatt family ophthalmology practice if the focus this week isn't on the chart with those rows of little letters.

That's because all their eyes are on Athens, where No. 1 U.S. Laser sailor Mark Mendelblatt hopes to chart a course to an Olympic medal.

The 31-year-old St. Petersburg native will have the office mainstays in Greece to cheer him on during the coming week and a half - his father, Dr. Frank Mendelblatt, his mother, Kathy Mendelblatt, who supervises the business, and his brother, Dr. David Mendelblatt, now a part of the operation, too.

"Mark's worked really hard over the years for this, and we're very excited and proud," said his father at his office on Sixth Avenue S in St. Petersburg on a recent afternoon.

"People who come in always inquire about him and want to know how he's doing," added his mother.

The answer is easy. Last November, Mendelblatt nailed the lone U.S. berth in the Laser category with a dominant victory at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston. What's more, he defeated Hawaii's John Myrdal, the man who had come from behind to defeat him at the 2000 trials.

Mendelblatt went to Sydney, but only to coach his girlfriend, Lenka Smidova of Czechoslovakia, in the European class event. Four years later they're together in Athens, and both are competitors. Mendelblatt, a longtime Tampa Bay area sailor who helped St. Petersburg High win four national titles, tuned up for his first Olympics in convincing fashion in May.

He won a silver medal in the 2004 Laser World Championships with a personal best performance, outdoing his previous top finishes of sixth in 2003 and eighth in 1999.

He has spent the past two months in Athens training for the Laser showdown. It's a competition of 11 races, with the worst race thrown out, taking place between Sunday and Aug. 22 (airing on Bravo along with other Olympic sailing). The heavy favorite is the Michael Jordan of the sport: Brazilian sailor Robert Scheidt, who has won six world titles. But Mendelblatt knows anything can happen in sailing, though realistically the rest of the field may be vying for a silver or bronze.

"Hopefully I can close it out strong here," he said by cell phone from an apartment in the town of Gylfada, site of the Olympic sailing venue. "It's going to take a pretty big effort to get a medal, but I think it's possible. I'm going to need to sail really well."

His sailing has improved in recent months through rigorous training with good friend Maciej Grabowski of Poland, one of the world's fastest downwind Laser sailors. Already strong upwind, Mendelblatt has improved his speed with Grabowski's help.

"We spent a lot of hours on the water, working on technique, and I think that has put me on a different level with some extra speed," he said. Mendelblatt has always moved well in the water. While he didn't pursue a career in optics, he did master the world of opti's - nickname for the youth-level dinghies known as Optimist Prams.

His parents were recreational sailors, and he began taking lessons at age 6 at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center. David, who was three years older, was busy becoming an accomplished sailor in his own right. He got his kid brother into competitive racing at 10 in the Optimists program at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

Mendelblatt had a knack for racing, evidenced by the national dominance he helped St. Petersburg High establish as well as in many state and national regattas. He continued to follow the path of his big brother, enrolling at Tufts University. He made major strides in college, becoming an All-American in 1993, 1994 and 1995 and earning Tuft's Athlete of the Year honor in '94.

Graduating in '95 with a degree in psychology, Mendelblatt made a run at the Atlanta Olympics the next year but finished third at the trials, which send only the top finisher to the Games. He soon set his own career course as a stockbroker, working for William R. Hough & Co. in St. Petersburg, while also pursuing sailing internationally.

His efforts paid off with eighth place (out of 71 boats) in the 1999 World Championships and a silver medal in the Pan Am Games later that year. Mendelblatt looked like the man to beat in the 2000 U.S. Trials at San Francisco Bay. But he didn't prepare well, failing to learn the ins and outs of the bay's currents, and it cost him. Though he held a commanding lead at the halfway point of the trials, Myrdal passed him on the next-to-last day and didn't look back.

For the next three years Mendelblatt sailed in a different direction. He spent three years with the One World America's Cup campaign, working the boom on a Seattle-based yacht. But as 2003 approached his thoughts drifted to another shot at the Olympics. He staged an impressive comeback to win the 2003 Rolex Miami OCR. He gained momentum by winning the Laser Pacific Coast and Gulf Coast Championships, followed by his sixth-place finish (out of 171 boats) in the World Championships in Spain.

Then came Houston, where his lead in the 32-boat field was so commanding he didn't have to compete in the final two events of the 12-race series. As for Mendelblatt's day job, Hough & Co. was sold and he is planning to restart his career as a stockbroker soon. But at least for a while, he's otherwise engaged.

"There's not much more I can do right now, all the hard work is done," he said. "I just need to stay rested."

Because a big prize is in sight for the eye doctor's son.

[Last modified August 11, 2004, 01:38:25]


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