"We ran full-speed into something we weren’t expecting,” admitted Dean Brenner, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, about the team’s performance at the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth, England. Brenner had expected a shot at five or six sailing medals before the Games. Instead, we earned zero—the team’s worst Olympics since 1936.
Some background. For 2012 the U.S. team stopped using domestic regattas to select its team and instead used the results from a pair of international competitions: the 2011 Skandia Sail for Gold in Weymouth and the 2011 ISAF Worlds in Perth, Australia. (Women’s Match Racing used its own separate two-regatta system.) According to Gary Jobson, outgoing president of US Sailing, there’s also been a long-standing, top-down policy from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to send an American athlete to each Olympic event, rather than cherry-pick top talent and invest accordingly; few other countries do this.
While some pundits may finger Brenner and the changes he implemented, these are misguided attacks. Instead, American sailors need to examine our lackluster feeder program, our distractive college-sailing curriculum, our outmoded “bring-everyone” mentality, our funding and our resource allocation.
While short-course American college sailing is fun, it doesn’t prepare our sailors for longer-course Olympic strategy and tactics. Also problematic is that most American racing sailors—myself included—learn their craft at exclusive yacht clubs. While excellent community-boating programs exist, racing remains a wealthy person’s game. This must change if we want to become internationally relevant.
Team Great Britain made a ruthless effort to improve its Olympic-medal count after its dismal 1996 Games. Likewise, Team Australia and Team New Zealand—both of which were shut out in 2004—made decisive changes. The results have been dramatic: Australia won three golds and a silver, and New Zealand won a gold and a silver in 2012.
“Brenner and his team have been working extremely hard [to change] from an individualist approach to a team approach,” said Peter Conde, Team Australia’s super-successful high-performance coach. “My advice? Stay the course.”
Having witnessed the events in Weymouth, I agree with Conde. I also challenge the USOC’s “bring-everyone” attitude. There was virtually zero chance the United States would medal in the Laser or the RS:X classes, so why did we send these sailors rather than invest more resources in our serious contenders?
Finally, it’s vital that US Sailing appreciates the importance of the freshman year of each Olympic “quad,” as this is when the seeds of future medals are sewn. SAIL’s own Josh Adams has now succeeded Brenner as director of Olympic Sailing. Hopefully he will heed Conde’s advice, at the same time drawing inspiration from the success of the Kiwis and the Aussies.
Photo by Daniel Forster/PPL