Into the Fire

Despite some distractions—heat, security issues, the meltemi—the U.S. Sailing Team looks to increase its record medal count at the Olympic Games this month in Athens

By Josh Adams

Thirty-year-old 49er sailor Tim Wadlow, a newcomer on the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, knows history is on his side. Since winning its first medals in 1932 (Star and 8-Meter), the U.S. team has garnered a record 54 medals, half of them since the Los Angeles Games in 1984. But, according to Wadlow, there’s a more telling statistic: “Historically, Americans generally do better at the Olympics than at the world championships leading up to the Games,” he said.

This bodes well for a team that was on a hot streak last spring and this month is ready to contend for medals in as many as five classes at the Olympic Regatta in Athens, Greece. In a major turnaround from last year, the U.S. had very strong performances at the world championships in the Laser (second), Tornado (second), Yngling (third), 49er (fifth), and Star (fifth) classes. Only 2 of the 11 U.S. crews (Star and Yngling) had medal finishes at the 2003 Pre-Olympics Regatta in Athens.

A year ago it was safe to predict that the Americans would contend only in the two keelboat classes at Athens. Now, because of what US Sailing’s Olympic Sailing Committee chairman Frank Hagerdorn describes as “sailors coming up in their performance curves,” the outlook is brighter.

The team’s 2004 sailing budget (US Sailing and U.S. Olympic Committee funds combined) is approaching $2 million, which is small potatoes compared to the funds available to the rich and talented British team. In general, international competition has been remarkably equal in the run-up to the Games, but in Athens the sailors will contend with more than their competitors. Athens is very hot in August. Wind patterns—the northerly meltemi and a multi-faceted sea breeze—are complicated at this time of year. Security issues are also distracting. Some sailors are staying low-key, maintaining a just-another-regatta attitude; others feel the weight of the rings. “It’s never over ’til it’s over,” said Star helmsman Paul Cayard. “This regatta is just an extreme case of that.”

Star: Cayard/Trinter
Paul Cayard understands pressure. He’s won photo finishes at the America’s Cup, been at the helm of a Volvo Ocean 60 during a knockdown in the Southern Ocean, and come within a point of qualifying for the Olympics in the Star (in 1984). The way he sees it, the Star competition in Athens won’t be decided until the final race, and as many as three teams will have a shot at the gold medal. “It’s going to be the team that sails the best regatta of their lives,” he said.

Cayard (Kentfield, California) and crew Phil Trinter (Lorain, Ohio) made it to Athens by unseating four-time Olympian Mark Reynolds from his Star throne. The duo placed second at the Pre-Olympics in 2003 and then dominated the Trials last winter. Much of their success can be attributed to their intense training regimen and optimal combined weight. Under the Star class’s new weight formula, a team with a big skipper can sail with more overall weight. The ideal combination is an athletic 220-pound skipper sailing with a 220-pound crew. Although Cayard, 45, admits that the formula “plays into the hands of the young guys,” he has followed a rigorous workout schedule to get to 220 pounds.

Typical Star events have large fleets. The Olympic Regatta is different. “Because there are only 17 boats on the racecourse, and all of them are fast, nobody gets far behind,” Cayard said. The “wind regimes” on the racecourse are also factors. The meltemi is a shifty offshore wind, the sea breeze can be reliable (or not), and sometimes they counteract each other. “The worst is when the sea breeze shuts down a light meltemi,” Cayard explains. “Last year we raced through two 180-degree shifts. It’s definitely not a straightforward venue.”

Medal chances: strong
Competition: Great Britain, Sweden, Canada
Strengths: racing discipline, tactics
Weaknesses: downwind speed in heavy air
Boat specs:
LOA 22’8″, beam 5’8″, draft 3’4″, displ. 1,479 lbs, sail area 285 sq ft
Sailor type: The Star is a boat for big men. The class’s crew-weight formula rewards heavy skippers who can hike aggressively upwind
U.S. gear: Folli hull, Emmetti mast, Quantum sails

Tornado: Lovell/Ogletree
Johnny Lovell (New Orleans, Louisiana) and Charlie Ogletree (Houston, Texas) may have survived their biggest Olympics challenge back in May, when a number of competitors questioned the legality of their sails. Ogletree, a sailmaker for Ullman in Houston, discovered a new laminate that is 20 percent lighter than what most Tornado sailors use. “We created quite a stir in the class,” said Ogletree. ISAF ultimately approved the cloth for use in the Olympics. This edge has helped make Lovell and Ogletree one of the fastest duos in the fleet. Perennial tenth-place finishers at the world level since 1996, they finished second at the world championship in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, won Hyeres Week in France, and in their third consecutive Olympics bid are in medal contention for the first time.

The new laminate—both film and fibers are made of Pentex, a polyester derivative—is the biggest breakthrough in the class since significant performance upgrades (a second trapeze, for the helmsman, and an asymmetric spinnaker) were adapted in 2001. “The cloth is made of the same raw materials as other Tornado sails,” explains Ogletree, “but it’s 20 percent lighter and stronger for its weight.” Because it has been ruled that the spinnaker must be made of a woven cloth, the laminate can be used only in the main and jib.

Ogletree secured exclusive rights to use the new laminate through the Olympic Games; it is shared with training partners The Netherlands and Great Britain. The three teams, working with Ullman’s Jay Glaser (California) and Pablo Soldano (Italy), together have developed sail designs. The technology and training is paying off in their results. All three boats finished in the top five at the 2004 Worlds and should factor in the medal hunt in Athens.

Medal chances: strong
Competition: The Netherlands, Austria, Great Britain
Strengths: boatspeed, experience
Weakness: heavy-air conditions
Boat specs:
LOA 20′, beam 9’11”, draft 32(, displ. 300 lbs, sail area 500 sq ft
Sailor type: The high-performance catamaran is typically crewed by athletic sailors with an appetite for boatspeed
U.S. gear: Marstrom hull and mast, Ullman sails

Yngling: Cronin/Filter/Haberland
Yngling skipper Carol Cronin spent just two weeks at her home in Jamestown, Rhode Island, during the 31⁄2 months leading up to the Games. The rest of the time she was in Europe sailing with her teammates, Liz Filter (Stevensville, Maryland) and Nancy Haberland (Annapolis, Maryland). At 40, Cronin has been a crew for much of her busy one-design career; she arrived at the Trials last winter with a spark of boatspeed that her competition—Trials favorites Betsy Alison and Hannah Swett—couldn’t match. “We have the Trials to select the best boat, not the favorite,” says head U.S. coach Gary Bodie.

Cronin and crew had an edge in speed in Miami’s six-boat fleet; the challenge in Athens is to keep that advantage in a fleet three times the size. Their results in international Yngling competition have been mixed, but they rallied to finish third at the women’s world championship in Santander, Spain, and proved they are medal contenders.

A strong and shifty meltemi will be tough for this trio, though Haberland, who joined the team last year, brings considerable tactical expertise to the boat. Expected light winds will play to their strengths.

Medal chances: strong
Competition: Great Britain, Spain, Germany
Strengths: light-air speed, maturity
Weaknesses: big-regatta experience, heavy-air speed
Boat specs:
LOA 21′, beam 5’7″, draft 3’6″, displ. 1,422 lbs, sail area 151 sq ft
Sailor type: The three-person Yngling is ideal for average-size women who enjoy tactical racing
U.S. gear: Abbott hull, Proctor mast, North sails

Laser: Mendelblatt
Of all the Olympic-class boats, the Laser is the boat for the common man. Yet success in the class has eluded American sailors since the Laser became an Olympic class in 1996. The hang-up has been downwind technique, and to judge from his second-place finish to Laser legend Robert Scheidt at the class’s world championship, Mark Mendelblatt has it beat.

A month before the Trials last fall, the 31-year-old from St. Petersburg, Florida, teamed up with Polish sailor Maciej Grabowski and focused on downwind sailing, using video to critique their techniques. He mastered the dos—steering with weight, optimizing heel and sheeting coordination to get maximum power from the sail—and eliminated the don’ts, like countersteering (helm does the opposite action of weight). Upwind is less technical. “It’s one of those boats in which you have to work harder than the guy next to you,” he said. Mendelblatt calls the Worlds in Turkey “the best regatta of my life” and recognizes he’ll need a repeat performance to win in Athens.

Medal chances: strong
Competition: Brazil, Australia, Portugal
Strengths: all-around speed, tactics
Weaknesses: light, steady winds
Boat specs:
LOA 13’11”, beam 4’6″, draft 2’7″, displ. 130 lbs, sail area 76 sq ft
Sailor type: The world’s most popular sailboat is designed for an athletic sailor in the 160-to-180-pound range
U.S. gear: supplied by Laser

49er: Wadlow/Spaulding
“The 49er is a great story,” says Gary Bodie. “It shows you can do a four-year program and win the Trials.” Since winning in February with relative ease, Tim Wadlow (San Diego, California) and Pete Spaulding (Miami, Florida) have been commuting to Europe for training and competition; this has kept them on a fast track to a solid top-five standing in the world, though to medal they’ll need to sail their best regatta yet. It’s not a bad position to be in considering they’ve come so far in such a short time.

Wadlow, an engineer, has done the numbers: “Seventy percent of the time, the first boat to the weather mark has gotten a good start, held its lane, and tacked on the first shift.” Sounds easy—but it’s easy to miss one of these goals. Wadlow and Spaulding’s obsessive attention to boatspeed has given them the tools necessary to win races, especially in heavy air. They finished the Worlds with a 1-2-1 in 18 to 20 knots, the same wind strength they saw last August while training in Athens.

Wadlow predicts that the coolest heads will prevail in Athens. “The difference,” he says, “will be being able to lose ten boats in a race, keep your head together, and get them back before the finish.”

Medal chances: moderate
Competition: Great Britain, Spain, Denmark
Strengths: heavy-air speed, oscillating winds
Weaknesses: 12-to-15 knots, heavy chop
Boat specs:
LOA 16′, beam 9’6″, draft 3’6″, displ. 275 lbs, sail area 630 sq ft
Sailor type: This gull-winged high-performance skiff favors agile and athletic sailors. It’ a wild boat when the wind is up
U.S. gear: MacKay mast and hull, Neil Pryde sails