Kaitlyn Liebel, to be exact, but the 18-year-old sailor would like you to focus on her first name, not her last name. That last name, Liebel, means a lot in the sailing community. Liebel, who sails with Sarasota Youth Sailing, is the daughter of Mark Liebel, a championship-level sailor who is on the board of SYS. Kaitlyn Liebel first got on a sailboat with her father at 3 years old. She has sailed around the globe with him and still sails with him today, but she is also cutting her own path through the sport.
It is why Liebel was so proud to receive two awards this year that reflected her ability and her character. First, at the 2022 Bacardi Cup Invitational Regatta in Miami in March — one of the biggest events on the sailing calendar — Liebel received the EFG Rising Star award, given to a young sailor who not only displays elite skills but elite sportsmanship, someone who can help the sport evolve for the better. Liebel navigated her "Another Bad Idea" boat to a third-place finish in the VX One class of boats at the regatta, alongside her teammates Mark Liebel and Jordan Wiggins.
"It helped me realize that people don't see me as just Mark Liebel's daughter," Liebel said. "I am my own sailor now. I am recognized now. I didn't know the award was a thing before I received it, so it caught me off guard, but I appreciated it. I never expected something that important to go to me. I looked around the room at all the world class sailors there and thought, 'How did I end up with this?'"
Liebel would later receive the Florida Women's Sailing Association's Young Woman Sailor of the Year award on May 20, which is similar in nature. Looking at Liebel's results, the awards are no surprise. Liebel finished third in the Nacra 1 class of boats at the 2021 Bluster on the Bay in Clearwater and second in the same class at the 2021 US Sailing Youth Championships in Sarasota. She also won the Club 420 class at the Sarasota Sailing Squadron's Labor Day Regatta.
In the FWSA's award release, the organization said Liebel is "a role model for young female sailors across the country and globe." Liebel said the awards were important to her not just as recognition of her success, but as proof that she is where she's supposed to be, doing what she is supposed to be doing.
In the fall, Liebel will attend and sail for Jacksonville University. Liebel said she fell in love with the school's campus and has friends in the area, but also likes the distance from home: far enough to get out of the Sarasota-Bradenton shadow, but close enough to come back home whenever she wants to return. Liebel said she also appreciated the Jacksonville coaching staff's dedication to its athletes and the camaraderie present on the team, which is important to her. As much as sailing can be an individual sport, cheering on her teammates is one of her favorite parts of it.
College will come later. Right now, Liebel is working as an SYS coach with the group's 5-7-year-old athletes, aka "tadpoles," at summer camp. For many of them, the camp is their introduction to the sport. Some have never stepped foot on a boat. Liebel is teaching them the basics and hopes to spark a love of the water in them. When she can get them to listen, at least. Liebel said she often has to resort to singing the "Hands, shoulders, knees and toes" song to capture their attention. Dancing to the song helps the kids get more energy out and allows them to focus on learning. It's a veteran move by a young sailor wise beyond her years, one who has the potential — and the drive — to be a leader in the sport for years to come.
"This (sport) is what changed my life," Liebel said. "I am so thankful for everyone who has helped me along the way. I hope I can give back and do the same for other little girls someday. What are you doing if you're not trying to better the lives of the people around you?"
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.