Field hockey star sails toward her goals

Alex Okuniewicz (in blue) crewing on the e-scow for the Island Heights Sailing Foundation Grant Program.

If you ever lose something and then get a sinking feeling, take heart that it’s nothing like Alex Okuniewicz’s experience.

“If I could tell you how many cell phones the Barnegat Bay has of mine, it’s unreal,” she says. “I could probably supply everybody at TCNJ with a cell phone that I (lost) in the water. I’ve lost radios, I’ve lost cell phones, I’ve lost sunglasses, I’ve lost everything in there.”

While Okuniewicz isn’t happy to lose all those items, she doesn’t regret where it happens. Sailing is her passion, developing on the Barnegat Bay after she started taking lessons at age 10 at Toms River Yacht Club. Now it could develop into a career for the senior health and exercise science major and star midfielder and defender on the TCNJ field hockey program. Upon graduation in May, she hopes to enter the U.S. Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.

“I want to be part of something bigger than me,” Okuniewicz, 21, says. “It would be amazing to serve my country. I can’t even wrap my head around how big being a part of something like that would be. I’ve been a part of teams my entire life, but that’s so small compared to something this big.”

There’s nothing small about what Okuniewicz has accomplished under field hockey coach Sharon Pfluger ’82. The New Jersey Athletic Conference’s rookie of the year in 2008, Okuniewicz is seeking her third straight season of all-conference first-team honors this fall.

Okuniewicz, who Pfluger calls her team’s fittest player, is blessed with terrific stick skills and has a natural sense for protecting the Lions’ goal. Just as important, she is a leader both on and off the field.

“She’s very focused, she’s very intense, very serious about what she wants to pursue,” Pfluger says. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Alex wants her team to do well and she’s going to do her best to make sure that she is productive in that quest.”

Off the playing field—or is it on the water?—Okuniewicz’s quest is furthering her future in sailing. She’s been working at Toms River Yacht Club since 2007, and this past summer was head coach of its junior sailing program for which she first honed her knowledge and skills. A sport in which boats tip over regularly (hence, the lost items), Okuniewicz feels rewarded by the enthusiasm of her students, who begin with seven- to eight-foot-long optimist boats, advance to 14-foot lasers. and then move into 28-foot, four-man E-Scows.

Okuniewicz (in gray lifejacket) coaching her junior sailors for Toms River Yacht Club at Junior Olympics Championship Regatta.

In addition to teaching the sport, she enjoys the rush of racing competitively, more individually than as part of a crew. However, she claimed one of her bigger regatta awards this year when her E-Scow crew took top rookie honors at the East Coast Championships.

“Personally, when I’m sailing alone, I get giddy when I think about it,” Okuniewicz says. “It’s a very serene environment, although it’s very competitive because it’s you against yourself. I mean, you’re racing against other people, but every decision is your decision—you can’t blame (mistakes) on anybody else but yourself.”

The Toms River South graduate will learn next year about potential acceptance into the Officer Candidate School. After 17 weeks of training, a candidate becomes an officer and begins a five-year commitment with the Coast Guard.

Graduate school is Okuniewicz’s backup plan, but the only direction she plans to sail is forward. “If anyone ever has a chance to learn how to sail, don’t ever pass it by,” she says.

Now if she could only hold on to her cell phone. Glub, glub, glub, glub …

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