"Olympic sailing has changed an enormous amount in the last 10 years,” says Dean Brenner, chairman of US Sailing’s Olympic Sailing Committee (OSC), who along with skipper Ed Baird and Tom Burnham narrowly missed winning an Olympic berth for the 2000 Games in the Soling class. “A decade ago,” Brenner remembers, “sailors had to raise their own money, hire their own coaches and compete for a berth using a domestic-trials system. They didn’t have access to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, team gear or much team involvement with the United States Olympic Committee.”
By contrast, today’s team has a committed, long-term title sponsor (Sperry Top-Sider) and recently moved to an international trials format. It has also landed an official apparel sponsor (Atlantis Weather Gear) to provide visual cohesion, and dramatically overhauled its overall culture and organizational and fundraising efforts. These changes, says Brenner, are in direct response to those better-financed and better-organized teams, like Britain’s Scandia Team GBR and the Brazilian team, that have been trouncing U.S. Olympic sailors since the 1990s.
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As with all major organizational changes, it will take time to gauge their true effectiveness, and should the U.S. sailing team’s medal count fall short of expectations, naysayers will undoubtedly call for revisions. Nonetheless, green shoots are already visible. Going into the 2008 Beijing Games, the team had outside medal chances in two or three classes. Four years later, it can seriously contend in three classes—the Finn, women’s match racing and the 49er class—and shows real promise in three others—the Laser Radial, Star and women’s 470.
“If the last [Games] were about fixing the house,” says Brenner, “this year’s Games are about inviting people over to check it out.”
By far the biggest change during Brenner’s tenure, which began in 2004, has been in the way the U.S. team is selected. Historically, U.S. sailors competed for Olympic berths in a winner-takes-all domestic regatta. This allowed a wide range of hopefuls to pursue the Olympic dream, but didn’t provide U.S. sailors with the international experience they needed to win medals.
Starting with the current Olympic quadrennium, or “quad,” US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider launched an international trials system similar to that used by most other countries. U.S. sailors now compete in a pair of qualifying events that are selected by the OSC and approved by the U.S. Olympic Committee. For all but the women’s match racing teams, these included the 2011 Sail for Gold Regatta in Weymouth, England, and the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships in Perth, Australia. Selection of the U.S. women’s match-racing team was based on results at the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships in Perth and a dedicated U.S. trials series in Weymouth in May.
To even participate in these regattas, the sailors first had to do well at a number of different qualifying regattas, including the 2011 Rolex Miami OCR, the 2011 Trofeo SAR Princesa Sofia MAPFRE in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, the 2011 Semaine Olympique Francaise in Hyères, France, and the 2011 Delta Lloyd Regatta in Holland. If that sounds like some serious airport time, it is. But Brenner says it’s essential to creating an internationally polished team.
Another big change involves team cohesion. Brenner says he barely remembers interacting with his fellow US Sailing team members during his 2000 Soling campaign, but those days are now in the past. By rebranding itself and focusing its long-term efforts, the team has become much more tight-knit, allowing its members to draw strength from one another and hopefully intimidate the competition. “Changing our system has made us a much closer team,” says Laser Radial sailor Paige Railey. “We’re friends who care about how each individual does. We push, support, encourage and motivate one another to perform to our fullest potential.”
Brenner’s term as chairman ends this November, but the changes he has instituted will likely endure, no matter what direction his replacement takes or how well the team does in Weymouth. Brenner’s successor will also discover a tidier campsite than the one he inherited, while the sponsorship deal with Sperry Top-Sider means funding is secure for some time to come.
Meanwhile, as Brenner is careful to point out, committees don’t win medals, sailors do. And things are looking good for Weymouth.
“We want to be the best sailing nation,” says Zach Railey, the U.S. Finn representative and a 2008 silver medalist. “We’ve taken huge steps toward that goal, and I believe that this Olympics will be a great test of where we’re at and what we need to do in the future....I’m excited to show the world what we can do.”
Let the Games begin!
Top photo by Richard Langdon/Perth 2011