Regrouping For Rio
“We ran full-speed into something we weren’t expecting.”
Thus did Dean Brenner, the outgoing head of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, describe the shellacking his team experienced at the 2012 London Olympics when it failed to win a single medal at the sailing venue in Weymouth.
But did they really? Did the team’s failure to get a single sailor on the podium really come as a complete surprise? And did things really go off the rails as badly as it seemed?
First, a reminder of just how bad it was. Not only did the 2012 Olympic regatta represent the first time the United States failed to win a single medal since the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany, but it was a year in which the U.S. team had actually hoped to turn things around.
Ever since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which the United States finished well down in the overall medal count with just a pair of bronzes, there had been growing concern the team was failing to keep up with the completion. In the years that followed, it had some notable successes, including a four-medal effort spearheaded by a dramatic come-from-behind overall victory by Mark Reynolds and Magnus Liljedahl in the Star class at the Sydney Games, and gold for Anna Tunnicliffe in the Laser Radial class at the Beijing Olympics. However, there was no getting around the fact that the United States still failed on each occasion to crack the top three in terms of medal counts.
In the run-up to the games the 2012 Games, the U.S. team had worked hard to increase its cohesion and provide its sailors with more resources, thanks to the financial support of organizations like the Sperry company. It had also updated its selection process, requiring sailors to compete at the international level for spots on the final team, as opposed to just competing again other sailors in the United States.
In the end, though, at Weymouth the U.S. team was only able to even finish in the top 10 in three of the 10 classes: women’s match racing, the Laser Radial and Star classes. The best finish out of the bunch was a fifth in the match-racing event.
Fortunately, if there’s one thing Americans do well, it’s pick themselves back up again after they’ve been knocked down. And that’s exactly what the team did under the leadership of Brenner’s successor as managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing, former SAIL publisher Josh Adams.
The result has been not only a renewed commitment to doing well at the upcoming Olympic regatta in Rio August 8-18, but at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and beyond in an effort that now goes full-bore from the beginning to the end of each Olympic quadrennium.
As part of this commitment to the long term, the team is also focusing on getting as many young sailors as possible into Olympic-style sailing and training, so that there will never again be a shortage of fresh talent to replace those sailors currently on the team when they decide to move on—much as has long been the case with the better-funded efforts in some other countries.
At the center of this ongoing campaign is what the Olympic Sailing Committee calls its Olympic Development Program (ODP), an initiative that formally kicked off in the winter of 2014-15 with the start of a $7.2 million, 10-year plan called “Project Pipeline:” an effort to provide as many young sailors as possible with high-level coaching, exposure to high-performance boats of the kind that will prepare them for the actual Olympic classes, and the chance to compete at the international level.
Throughout the year, for example, US Sailing now holds a series of training camps, at places like Long Beach, California, Miami, Florida, Houston, Texas, and Newport, Rhode Island, where young sailors selected at a number of “observation” regattas are exposed to top-level coaching and have a chance to sail against other similarly selected peers. The sailors at these camps who show the most promise are then invited to become a part of a national travel team, which goes to a number of youth international class regattas. This travel team also serves as a springboard for the US Sailing Youth Worlds Team, which competes at the annual Youth Worlds Regatta, which will be taking place this year in New Zealand in December.
Throughout, these young sailors (around 250 of whom took part in the program in 2015) sail primarily on International 420s, Laser Radials and 29ers—the thinking being that these are not only the boats used in the Youth Worlds, but also provide the best stepping stones toward those same Olympic classes in which it is hoped these young sailors will someday prevail.
“All eyes are going to shift to Rio this summer, but throughout that same time the ODP isn’t going to slow down a bit,” Adams says, emphasizing the long-term perspective of the program. “It just keeps chugging along.”
As for the athletes comprising US Sailing Team Sperry, the group from which the Olympic roster is drawn, Adams says the approach is much the same: access to the absolute best coaching available and lots of sailing at the international level, including as much time as possible sailing on Rio’s Guanabara Bay. The latter, in particular, Adam says is crucial since in addition its well-publicized cleanliness issues, it is also a body of water replete with tricky currents and swirling winds.
To this end, as far back as 2013, US Sailing Team Sperry established a training facility at the Clube Naval Charitas in Niterói, about five miles east of Rio and at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, directly across from the Olympic sailing venue. Not only has this facility provided easy access to the seven race areas being set aside for the Olympic regatta; it also allows the team to keep a full complement of boats and gear at the ready so that when the sailors arrive for either a regatta or training they can get out on the water as quickly as possible.
Not surprisingly, the team has been taking full advantage of this resource since the day it opened, getting familiar with area both during training and in the context of such regattas as the Aquece Rio pre-Olympic test events in 2015 and 2016. In the three months leading up the Games themselves the entire team has also been coming down to Niterói for a series of 10-day training camps—each one of which takes place at the same point in the tidal cycle as the Olympics—to become even more familiar with where they’ll be sailing for medals.
The team has also been well represented at other events such as the Sailing World Cup regattas in Miami, Florida, and Hyeres, France, so that it can hone its skills against the best of the best. Of course, this kind of thing is neither easy on the sailors nor cheap. But according to Adams, it’s an essential part of becoming competitive at the Olympic level, given the increasingly professionalized training regimens that have become the norm in any number of othercountries, such as New Zealand, Australia, China and Great Britain.
As for coaching, one of the Olympic Sailing Committee’s earliest moves after it met in late 2012 to do a post mortem on Weymouth was bring in two-time Olympic bronze medalist Charlie McKee to serve as the team’s high performance director—a kind of “head coach” for the entire Olympic sailing effort.
“My job is to guide the long-term direction of the team with Josh, make sure our priorities are in line with our goals and guide the training of the athletes, and work with individual coaches,” says McKee, whose medals came in the 470 and 49er classes in the 1988 and 2000 Olympics, summing up his role with respect to the rest of the team.
At the same time, while admitting that he “watches a lot of racing” McKee emphasizes that his approach is a flexible one in which he allows the individual coaches to tailor their coaching to the unique needs of the various different sailors and teams: a smart strategy given that the final Olympic roster alone includes 15 sailors and 13 different coaches and training staff.
It also makes sense given the depth of coaching talent McKee has on hand, including such veterans as long-time Olympic coach Luther Carpenter, Mark Reynolds, Morgan Reeser, Mark Littlejohn and Dave Ullman, who was recently recognized as a Coach of the Year for his efforts. In all, the staff can claim more than two-dozen medals earned as sailors or coaches to its credit—an impressive resume.
Equally impressive, says McKee, is the way a number of this year’s Olympic alternates have stepped up to help with the current team’s final preparations by serving as training partners out on the water.
“It’s a really positive thing,” McKee says, citing the way athletes like Laser Radial sailor Erika Reineke, and 49er sailors Judge Ryan and Hans Henken, have been spending weeks helping their teammates during their final tune ups. Also pitching in down in Rio are Nacra 17 sailor Sarah Newberry and 49er sailor Trevor Byrd, who are helping out Nacra 17 Olympians Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee. “The sailors are telling me, ‘I want to get the most out of this quad as I can and use it as a springboard for the next quad. It’s that level of dedication that matches what you need to succeed. That is how you build a program, how you build depth,” McKee says.
He adds that both the current and future teams are going to need this kind of dedication, and more if they hope to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive Olympic environment. “The game is totally different now. It’s full-time all four years for everybody these days,” he says, noting that in terms of on-site preparation for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he sailed a mere two regattas there.
“Clearly, the game has become more time-intensive and physical. The athletes spend more time practicing than we did. It’s also a lot more expensive. Just showing up to race is not a formula for success.”
Then, of course, there is the question of the sailors’ health, both as it relates to the Zika virus and the sanitary conditions on Guanabara Bay.
With respect to the bay, Adams and McKee say the U.S. team was well aware that pollution was a reason for concern well before the media got its teeth into the story, and the team has reacted accordingly: studying the situation in depth and crafting a protocol designed to minimize the risk of illness.
“We got ahead of it several years ago, before the headlines, and ran our own water study, which our medical team used to come up with a set of recommendations,” Adams says. “These include vaccinations, the athletes watching their diet, and cleaning up their boats and gear, as well as their bodies, after each on-the-water session. We also follow a team medical protocol in the event any athlete should get sick.”
As for Zika, Adams admits that, like the rest of the medical community, his team doesn’t have all the answers. However, he says he is in contact with Olympic organizers and the team’s health specialists, who are keeping the team abreast of the latest developments.
“This has been a developing international medical concern, an issue for all the Olympic athletes, not just the sailors,” Adams says. “We are prepared as a team and feel confident in the concrete steps we have taken to prepare the athletes to be healthy and safe.
“In the end,” he adds, with respect to the various political problems Brazil was also experiencing as this issue went to press, “what we want is for people to remember a great regatta,”
Finally, there is the question of how the U.S. team will fare this time around: will fans have to grin and bear a “rebuilding” Olympiad, or will there be a medal or two they can celebrate?
Not surprisingly, both Adams and McKee are guarded, to say the least, when it comes to making predictions. Nonetheless, no matter what happens it’s clear they feel pretty good about both their current team and where US Sailing Team Sperry is headed in general—both making a point of the fact that for 12 of the 15 sailors headed to Rio, it will be their very first Olympics.
That said, there are also some veterans on the roster who are undoubtedly hungry for their place in the sun, and over the past couple of years a number of newcomers have been quite successful on the international stage as well. (For more on who they’re up against, see “Sizing Up the Competition.”)
“You’re never as bad as you look when you’re not winning, and you’re not necessarily as good as you look when you are,” McKee says with regard to how the team did four years ago, adding that if a couple of breaks had gone the other way, the results might have been very different than they were.
Translation: if the team sails up to its potential and makes the most of the vagaries that are part and parcel of sailboat racing, there may very well be reason for U.S. sailing fans to celebrate. Let the Games begin!
SAIL will also be covering the regatta in real-time with a series of daily e-newsletters that will be broadcast from the beginning to the end of the regatta