Meet Your Match: A One on One with Janel Zarkowsky

In celebration of Women’s History Month, US Sailing chatted with our colleague and friend Janel Zarkowsky about her experience and success in sailing. Zarkowsky works as a Siebel Sailors Program Coach for US Sailing, as well as being a certified instructor, an assistant sailing coach at Georgetown University, and a professional sailor, having most recently competed at the 2022 Women’s Match Racing World Championship in Auckland this past November. Additionally, Zarkowsky is a classically trained cellist with a bachelor’s degree in music performance and a master’s degree in nonprofit management, both from Boston University; as well as a master’s degree in project management from Georgetown University. Zarkowsky is also a member of US Sailing’s Match Racing Committee and the U.S. Match Racing Championships Committee.

Zarkowsky grew up in a Navy family, and her love of sailing stems from her family’s passion for it, both competitively and leisurely. She chased this passion throughout college and throughout her career, believing that your career shouldn’t feel like work but rather something you love.

In our abridged interview below, Zarkowsky discusses how she charted a course unknown throughout her sailing career. She now looks back on that course to see there was a path all along – and one that she has forged for the next generation of women in sailing.

Mikayla Pantano: Tell me about yourself. How did you start sailing?

Janel Zarkowsky: I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, but my father retired as a captain in the Navy, which meant our family moved every two to three years. I really enjoyed it because we always moved to a waterside town, and we had our own family motorboat and sailboat so we could go sailing together. My parents actually met sailing, and my father taught me and my older sister to sail. They put me right into sailing camp in Annapolis at Severn Sailing Association when I was six or seven. I was learning to sail and having fun, and then I started racing when I was eight or nine. So, I’ve been doing it for a very long time!

Mikayla: That’s awesome that it’s been a part of your family. What has kept you sailing? Have your interests changed throughout your sailing life?

Janel: I was definitely influenced by my family, since it was something that we did in our spare time, especially on the weekends. As I grew up, I was on a sailing team in high school with my really close friends. I stuck with racing, because it was just fun to be with my friends, and we just happened to be racing sailboats. In college, I wanted to keep finding friends who also liked sailing at the college level. I looked at universities that had sailing teams, but I didn’t know if it was going to be what I did with my career. I just knew I wanted to be around people who also liked sailing and continue spending my weekends sailing like I have done for the decade before.

I ended up going to Boston University, being on the sailing team, and getting a degree in music performance for the cello. I’ve been playing the cello also since I was five or six years old, so these are the two things that have followed me throughout my life. But I had a big shift in my junior year where I had to pick one or the other, sailing or music, and I chose to only do music and give up sailing. It felt so sad that I had to give up sailing for any part of time to focus on a music career. So I pushed back and said no, I’m going to do both. I put my foot down and kind of shifted my education away from being strictly music and did a business degree alongside it while continuing to sail.

When I graduated, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. College sailing saved me with assistant coaching jobs, and I got a master’s right after I graduated undergrad at BU while I was a graduate assistant coach. So, BU paid for my first master’s while I coached sailing at the same time. I was lucky to get a master’s in nonprofit management, which meant if I wasn’t going to be in the orchestra, I could manage it.

I worked in Boston for two more years, then moved home to Annapolis. While I was figuring out what I wanted to do next, I started working for Georgetown University as their college sailing coach, and I did that for almost a decade. I found a really deep passion for coaching and mentoring students that wanted to keep sailing throughout their life. I still help out on weekends as much as I can, and I’m still very connected to college sailing. I’m also very connected with match racing, which is a discipline within sailing – one boat against another. I try to make sure that college sailors have a path to match racing, which is really important to me to keep that open, keep explaining it, and keep connecting new sailors to the discipline.

Mikayla: I want to come back to match racing because I know you just competed at the end of last year, which is incredible. But you work full-time at US Sailing, you coach at Georgetown, I think you’re an instructor too?

Janel: Yeah, I’m an instructor. I have all my instructor certifications: my level one, level two, and level three. Those have helped with the Siebel Sailors program, which is coaching youth. I go all the way back to my roots by coaching the middle school aged kids and teaching them that sailing is fun and not scary.

Mikayla: So, you’re also an instructor, youth coach, a classically trained cellist, you have two master’s degrees, and you’re a professional sailor. I feel like you’re someone who, when you want to do something, you go get it. Would you agree? Do you think that is a skill that you’ve learned through sailing?

Janel: Definitely. When I grew up sailing, everyone started singlehanded, meaning being by themselves. There’s a time where you can pivot and choose to be doublehanded. It was probably my dad who pushed me to do singlehanded, encouraging me by saying, “You can control the boat, you can do everything.” So I’ve always felt a drive that I can do it by myself. I love working on teams and developing as a team, but I know if I can present my piece really well, then I can do anything.

Sailing has definitely made me realize that I can hope to do something, make it my dream, and then work on the little pieces. It doesn’t have to happen immediately, it can happen over the next 20 years, but then all of a sudden, I’m just a different person than who I thought I would be, all because of sailing.

Mikayla: That’s something you taught me when we went sailing together. I learned I could steer the boat, how to pull the ropes, and then suddenly, it all came together. Are there any other life skills or anything else that sailing has given you?

Janel: I’m in an interesting transition where I’ve been doing a lot of sailing, and now I’m starting to realize the impact of giving back and supporting the path to where I am now. I’m part of US Sailing’s Match Racing Committee, which is a volunteer committee, and there are various subcommittees that have different tasks. I’ve been on the college match racing subcommittee, making sure that college match racing has a connection from college to adulthood for how to keep competing for the next decade if you really love sailing, as I have done. We have a big focus on women sailing, and we really want to increase how many women feel confident driving in match racing. It feels like a very male dominated sport and a male dominated instructor pool as well.

Over the last decade, all my friends who have kept in women’s match racing have come back and started questioning, “Why don’t we do the coaching? Why don’t we set up the events? Why don’t we mentor the next level?” My friend Beka Schiff and I, who is a co-chair of the women’s subcommittee within match racing, are creating a series of events to happen around the country all leading up to the US Women’s Match Racing Champs. As of last year, there’s now a Women’s World Match Racing Tour, which is going to eventually have prize money. I’m on the advisory board for that, which allows me to make sure that I know all the information to get our US events connected, that we can have stops in the US, and that the organizers think of what an American sailor would want and where we would want to travel. That piece has really developed over the last six years. I didn’t used to think of myself as someone others can look to for questions about women’s match racing, or as a leader for those asking, “How can I be like you?” It feels really good to look back and realize I did have a path. I carved it myself, but now I can make sure that I can help someone else to make their own path or to follow the path that I took.

Mikayla: I think that’s the path of so many women in the sports industry too – whether athletes themselves or in the offices. So, tell me more about the Women’s Match Racing Worlds last year. How was your experience?

Janel: Oh my gosh, it was the coolest! In my match racing career, I started off as a crew – so not driving, and I was on the bow, the very front of the boat, doing all the running around and almost falling off. It was my favorite part, and I fell in love with the sport because of the bow position.

I was very lucky to sail with Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, and we did a lot of match racing together. They’re off doing incredible things in the Olympics, on their second campaign for the 49er FX. When they left to do that, and I was the third person on the team I wondered “Well, now, what do I do?” but then I stopped and thought, “You know what, I can drive.” People have always said I was a great driver leading all the way up into college before I became the crew on their team, so I decided I’m going to start driving. It became a full circle moment having previously sailed the Worlds with Stephanie and Maggie, to then work hard for six years to become a driver, learn that role, and level up in the US, and then finally get the rankings to be invited to Worlds. It felt like “Of course Janel is going to come to these world-level events because she’s really, really good,” and I thought “Holy crap, I got here.”

The skipper usually gets their name on the sail, so there was a giant ZARKOWSKY filling the whole sail. It was really fun. The tour goes all around the world, so it’s a really cool opportunity if you like to travel. Then when you get there, you’re surrounded by people just like you. Every woman’s driver there has their own story of how they built up their team for the last six years trying to make it here. It was really cool to be in a room with everyone because we all just immediately became friends and got along. It was the best. I haven’t seen that in a long time since there was a big gap in women’s match racing after it was dropped as an Olympic discipline after the 2012 Games. Now we’re just getting the support to do the Women’s World Match Race Tour, which is a partnership with the World Match Race Tour, that has stepped up and decided it should have a women’s component. We’re back!

Mikayla: That sounds like women’s history in the making. One of the things you mentioned is how sailing is a historically, male-dominated sport. I’d love for you to talk more about what your experience is with that aspect. It seems maybe you experienced the opposite end of the spectrum at the Women’s Match Racing Worlds. What has your experience been like overall?

Janel: When I was really young, I didn’t absorb how male dominated it was, but I had a huge ally in my father wanting me to be a sailor. I think a big difference from the generation of women before me (I was born in the late 80s, so I’ll say the 90s moving on) is that there were a lot more allies speaking up. It wasn’t weird to see a woman driving; it was the start of something new. I think I was part of that start of pushing women to drive, for women to be in leadership roles, for them to be coaches, for them to be competing at the same level, as well as having a big push for women’s-only events. That effort was driven a little bit by the NCAA. Even though sailing isn’t an NCAA sport, it felt that same movement sports wide.

I got a lot of support as a woman’s driver, which pushed me to the next level, and a lot of things were being created as I was becoming a college sailor and graduating, like the Olympics women’s match racing. I literally just graduated college and then there was women’s match racing in the Olympics. The coaches came and said they wanted all the women’s college sailors to do women’s match racing, so I was so lucky. I decided I was going to ride this wave and keep on going.

There’s a lot of allyship that exists, all of which showed up as I was growing up. So while I do think there are some parts of the sport that are still male dominated, there’s a big wave of all the women that are my age and younger who feel really confident coming in because there have been so many women’s-specific opportunities that we’ve been able to take advantage of. There are women’s specific events, scholarships for women coaches so we can see that women coaches are in leadership roles, pushes for events like the women’s match racing championships, and events where the whole regatta management team are women. I now have this list of people who want to be involved because there is so much allyship that has been built up. It is the result of a lot of hard work over the last 10-20 years as I’ve grown up, but I’m so excited to be part of it and keep pushing it forward.

Mikayla: That sounds like your path in sailing has really been in line with the history of women’s sailing and how the sport has been evolving. As a woman in sailing, especially as a coach and leading a lot of the charges in match racing, what kind of message would you want to give to other women and girls in sailing? For the future? For the present?

Janel: I still have huge dreams for what I want to do with my sailing career. A job shouldn’t be work, it should be something that you love. I found that if I’m going to spend my spare time doing something, it’s going to be doing something I love. I love that I’m going to work for something over the next 5-10 years, find the people who want to do it with me, and then develop these relationships. Sailing is something that you can do for a really long time, and you can have these goals. It provides me with such great purpose.

I think a lot of young women feel a little bit lost. Sometimes they’re told where they need to go. I think sailing is a really nurturing place, and the sport of sailing can give you so many different paths. You can find which one you want to take and develop yourself. Sailing lets you be by yourself, one with nature, work as a group, and give back. It’s so unique. I think if you’re competitive and you have big dreams, sailing is the perfect place for you because you can do it for a lifetime. You can make these grand dreams and just run with them.

Mikayla: What message would you give to other folks in sailing? Especially recalling the sport’s male-dominated history, what would you want your male allies to know about women’s sailing?

Janel: We’re always searching for allies in the sport. Defining an ally is just being supportive, being present, giving back, and lifting up women around you, not tearing them down. It’s about having women-specific events, not just because we’re women, but doing it because we’re sailors, we’re members of the community, and we’re going to succeed. We are building this women’s pathway with people of all genders who want to lift us up and see us be successful. It is important moving forward that people understand being an ally is more than just supporting women’s sailing by allowing women to be near you in your facility or having an event.

Mikayla: I agree. Being an ally is about that active piece. You can be unintentionally inclusive, but to be an ally is to really support and boost up women and women’s sailing and opportunities, which aren’t taking away opportunities from anyone else, but just celebrating the excellence that is already present in the sport and providing that platform.

Janel: There was a lot of male leadership in the US Sailing Match Racing Committee. They knew that the Women’s Championship, which used to be held every two years, was going to disappear at one point. So, we really fought to change that. I was one of those voices who said, “We should really have it every year. If the Opens happen every year, the women’s events should be happening every year too.” At that point, I was kind of “voluntold” that I should be the leader of the Women’s Championship, but I was hesitant because I had never done anything like that before. But there were, and there are, so many allies in that committee who said “We won’t let you fail, but you need to be the voice and you need to lead it. You need to put your ‘why’ out there of why you want to do it, so that you can connect with the next generation of why they would want to do it too.” I felt really supported.

Mikayla: As a coach, or even as an instructor, bringing up this next generation of sailors, do you do anything specific to make your teams feel inclusive?

Janel: For the first round of the Siebel Sailors Program from 2019 to 2022, our first grant goals were to just increase diversity. We had a lot of metrics about race and ethnicity and our students, which we realized was a great place to start, but it really wasn’t capturing the results we wanted to see. We really wanted retention. We started to measure what makes kids excited to come back year after year, so we created metrics towards values to quantify how kids felt.

We created a values-based education model to connect learning to sail with having fun, feeling respected, and what those things mean at different ages. We realized that the kids are a very important part of recruiting a diverse group of kids from our communities. So, it became more about making the sailing center welcoming and inclusive. We spent time with the coaches and leadership to discuss our new priorities and address that the way they had been showing up, despite not realizing it, came off as very unwelcoming for the community coming in. There needed to be a change in how we presented ourselves, and we needed to meet the students where they were and understand some of their insecurities before they arrived.

By year three, we mainly worked with coaches, and I did a lot of one-on-one mentoring and side by side coaching. I think the biggest piece to our success was being physically present to be able to reiterate that our values are the most important thing and to model the way we were going to coach, which was a big shift away from traditional methods of just going out on the water and learning tacking and calling that success for the day. Actually, our success was in the huge increases in retention that came from the students being excited to see their instructors and the instructors being excited to see them. No one felt uncomfortable; they were just excited to be together. A big change from the beginning of the grant to the end of the grant was the Siebel coaches being present, intentional, and modeling these new priorities for how to get retention.

Mikayla: That’s awesome. You touched on some important things there especially in creating that inclusion, that there needs to be different levels. The inclusion needs to be felt in the one-to-one connections and in the group sessions, but it also needs to be throughout the larger system of having the whole club be inclusive.

Janel: In the USOPC webinar we had recently, they talked about how it really comes from getting buy-in from your staff and from your leadership to change. I think everyone feels like they are trying to and want to be inclusive, but the Siebel coaches could provide real feedback on where certain actions weren’t creating inclusive results. And the fatigue is real for sailing centers, but I think the Siebel program gave them a nice pause to think about the most important things and if they were doing the things they said they wanted to do, like creating inclusion.

Mikayla: Even ‘doing’ the inclusivity needs to be inclusive to keep each other accountable. That sounds like what you were saying earlier about that active allyship of including women and promoting women’s excellence in sailing. We need those active allies in inclusion in all areas and at all levels.

Are there topics that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss, or is there anything else you’d like to share? You said you still had big dreams for your sailing career and for women’s sailing. If you could put everything else aside, what’s the dream?

Janel: Oh my gosh. Lots of dreams! I want a Rolex. Betsy Alison has lots of Rolexes. To be awarded one, you essentially need to win something, like a very high-level event and that takes a lot of work to get up to it. I’ve been working towards winning the Women’s Match Racing Championships for a long time, about six, seven years. I’ve gotten second place four times and third place twice, so I just want to win that one! But I’m so close to doing it. I’ve been pulling in a lot of Georgetown women sailors with me. So, I’ve had almost exclusively Georgetown female sailors on my boat with me that are all college level, have all been coached by me, and are now on their way to competing for a national championship. Now about six years later, I have this huge network of Georgetown women sailors that make two or three teams, and all go sailing because they feel experienced and ready for the next step. So, I’d love to win the US Women’s Match Racing Champs, finally, after lots of work there. I’d love to win the Open Match Racing Champs, which is mostly male drivers and the level of match racing in the US is quite high. I’m ranked around 120 in Open and top 20 in Women’s. I’m looking to close that gap and win the US champs.

There’s the Congressional Cup, which is an elite level, a grade one match racing out in California on these really big sailing boats with steering wheels. When you win it, you get a blazer, so I’d love that blazer. I want a women’s cut blazer and I’ll be the first women to do it. If I win the Open Match Racing Champs, I would be the first woman driver to do it, and I’d love to do it with an all-women’s crew. I’m working on developing an all-women team to win the Congressional Cup, which would be the first time a woman had won it as a driver, and hopefully on an all-women team.

When you go to these events, they’re top-level events. Everyone’s there to win it. Everyone’s going to work their hardest. So, when you go and you win something like that, it just feels incredible because it’s such a high-level competition. I want to do it all. I really want that Rolex, but I won’t be done after that!


US Sailing Match Racing page:

US Women’s Match Race Series leading into the US Women’s Championship info:

US Women’s Match Race Championship page:

Women’s World Match Race Tour: