When Nikki Barnes began sailing at age 6, she dreamed about one day competing in the Olympics — as well as beating her older brother.
The St. Thomas native will finally get that chance later this year.
Barnes, now a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Miami, and sailing partner Lara Dallman-Weiss qualified for one of the U.S. Sailing Team’s spots in the in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, which begin in late July.
Barnes, the duo’s skipper, and crewperson Dallman-Weiss will compete in the women’s 470 class at the Tokyo Games. They earned Team U.S.A.’s spot by advancing to the final round of the 2021 470 World Championships, which conclude today in Vilamoura, Portugal.
“We still have the medal races, but we’re very happy about this,” Barnes said in a telephone interview Friday, not long after being notified by U.S. Sailing officials. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s hit us yet. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, especially since we still have to race [today]. But we’ve put in the work.
“I’d say it’s a little unbelievable, but we’re worked hard enough that we deserve the qualification. It’ll probably hit us hard once we think about it, but right now we’re still in racing mode.”
Barnes and Dallman-Weiss are currently seventh out of 27 entrants in the women’s division at the 470 Worlds with 97 points. The closest U.S. crew, Carmen and Emma Cowles of Larchmont, N.Y., are in 12th with 110 points, but they aren’t racing in today’s medal round. “The worst that we can do [in the medal round] is 10th overall,” Barnes said. “Even with that, we still end up qualifying.”
Said Luther Carpenter, the U.S. Sailing Team’s head coach: “It was so close between our three teams that this was going to determine the qualifier. I’m excited that it turned out to be Nikki and Lara.”
Still, it was a close call. In Friday’s races, the Cowles sisters posted finishes of fifth and sixth place, while Barnes and Dallman-Weiss opened with an 18th-place finish. But they ended the day with a third-place finish — and earning the Olympic qualifying berth.
“We didn’t know about Trials when we crossed the finish line because it was so close, so my feeling was just immense pride in our team and how we sailed the regatta,” Dallman-Weiss said.
“The three of us sat out there refreshing the results page waiting to find out. [Then] Nikki started bawling and we felt all the emotions. I am just so proud, so grateful — so grateful we even had a Worlds, grateful we had the other two teams pushing us, just all-around happy.” The 27-year-old Barnes, a 2012 Antilles School graduate who went on to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy in 2017, began learning the ins and outs of sailing in an Optimist-class sailboat at the St. Thomas Yacht Club.
Her older brother, Rian Bareuther (now 30), was already sailing in Optis there. A few years later, Barnes began competitive sailing, first at the yacht club, then with Antilles School’s championship-winning sailing team.
“Growing up, when I got into competitive sailing, I always knew then I wanted to go to the Olympics,” Barnes said. “This is a dream come true.”
Even at the Coast Guard Academy, Barnes didn’t give up sailing. There, she was a three-time Intercollegiate Sailing Association All-American, and when she was stationed in Miami, the Olympic dream was still there.
Barnes began sailing a 470-class sailboat, then partnered with Dallman-Weiss, of Hugo, Minn. — herself a championship-winning sailor — nearly 2½ years ago to form Perfect Vision Sailing, with the goal of earning a spot in the Tokyo Games.
The Coast Guard became a helping hand in that effort, moving Barnes into a Support Allowance Billet, which gave her the time to train and compete until the end of the 2021 Tokyo Games.
“They’ve allowed me, from after I graduated from the Academy, to train full time,” Barnes said. “They helped make this dream come true. Being allowed to train full time while still being on active duty, that’s pretty incredible.”
Their plans were sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which put most sports worldwide — including the Olympics — on hiatus. The Tokyo Games wound up being delayed by a year.
However, that wound up working in Barnes’ and Dallman-Weiss’ favor. They used the time to train in Santander, on the north coast of Spain, and in the Canary Islands for a few months.
“During the COVID time … we were able to train with these incredible teams, in really hard conditions,” Barnes said. “It was all about just the time to put our heads down and get the work done.”
That also left the field wide open for the Tokyo Games, Barnes said.
“During the time off, it kinda scrambled the fleet,” she added. “We have the veteran sailors who weren’t able to get on the water, and we got more water time and were able to use that time well.
“It’s up for grabs at the Olympics, pretty much. It really shows that the teams that took the risk of traveling and getting the training done, it really paid off.”