If experience has a tone, it would sound like three-time Olympian and 470 sailor Stu McNay—steady, measured, with a positive, almost Mr. Rogers feeling. “Each Game has a unique flavor,” he says, the day before last spring’s 470 European Championships, one of the rare events he and crew, Dave Hughes, have been able to use to prepare for this month’s delayed 2020 Olympic regatta in Enoshima, Japan. “It reflects many things and who you are at that time.”
McNay and the rest of the U.S. Sailing Team have spent the last year doubling down on their campaigns, creatively analyzing the mental and mechanical elements in the context of a global pandemic. Not surprisingly, this has been no easy task in light of the spattering of on-again, off-again events this year combined with travel restrictions that have kept most Americans out of Europe at the same time many of their competitors have been able to train together.
Then, of course, there’s the team’s recent history. After dominating Olympic sailing for decades, the U.S. Team has underperformed of late, to say the least: winning just a single bronze medal in the Finn class at the 2016 Games in Rio and coming away empty-handed at the London Olympics in 2012.
So, is the American team ready? Are these same sailors who have devoted years to their campaigns ready to “peak” when the Games begin on July 23? The answers aren’t simple. However, the vibe across the US Sailing Team as a whole is that if they weren’t ready to peak at the Games last summer, they’re a lot closer now.
“Even small changes make big differences,” McNay says with respect to his own recent training. This will be his fourth Games in a row, and although he’s come up short with two different crews, history has shown U.S. medalists in the 470 class, both women and men, achieving success well into their careers, in their 30s, 40s and even 50s.
“My first Games was just about winning the trials,” McNay says. “The second Olympics was about performance, and we fell flat. The third we made meaningful changes, and we finished fourth. This Games? It has its own flavor.”
A big part of this “flavor” as McNay puts it, is uncertainty—an aspect of this year’s Olympic Games that the team, in addition to the yearlong delay, is actively focusing on using to its advantage.
“Somehow, Covid-19 has been good to us…We were unfortunately behind and not ready to peak in 2020,” says Paul Cayard, the recently installed executive director of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program, of the unique challenges—and opportunities—inherent in the current Olympiad. And like McNay, Cayard knows what he’s talking about, having won silver in the 2003 pre-Olympic regatta in Athens and finishing fifth in the Games themselves.
“The last thing you want as a favorite is uncertainty,” Cayard says of the variables this year, like the fact that at press time it still wasn’t entirely clear when exactly the sailors would be able to enter Japan. “You want everything to go exactly as planned and no sudden changes. [But] we are underdogs. This can play into our favor.”
At press time, the United States had qualified in all but one of the 10 sailing events, with the 49er pair of Nevin Snow and Dane Wilson first on the waiting list for a slot in the event one of those countries that did secure a spot can’t make it. The remaining uncertainty surrounding the U.S. women’s 470 team was resolved at the world championships this year in Palma, Spain when Nikki Barnes and Lara Dallman-Weiss won painfully long and tight trials—a perfect example of what Cayard cites as the benefits of the yearlong delay.
“They were 31st at the 2019 worlds and seventh this year,” he says of the improvements Barnes and Dallman-Weiss have been able to make over the course of the year, Covid-19 notwithstanding. “They made a quantum gain. This puts them in a position as an outsider for an Olympic medal.”
There is a list of predictors for winning an Olympic medal that many national squads use to both to focus their training and decide which teams go to the Games and which don’t. These indicators often include winning the world championships the year of the Games, top five the year before and a list of other top performances.
Using these kinds of metrics, the 49er FX duo of Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, which came away with a bronze medal at the 2020 Worlds, is the U.S. crew most likely to medal in Enoshima, followed by McNay and Hughes, who finished fifth at their 2021 championship.
Veteran Olympians Paige Railey and Charlie Buckingham, in the Laser Radial and Laser classes, have also both floated around the top 10 at a number of international regattas and been equally full-on in their training—with Railey, in particular, partnering up with Canadian Sarah Douglas in Miami all winter and having won more championship medals in the Radial than any other sailor.
Similarly, RS:X windsurfers, Farrah Hall and Pedro Pascual have also both been to the Games before and know what it’s like competing at this rarified level. Lack of competition in the class domestically has forced them both to train aboard, with Pascual, in particular, has been able to train with Spanish and other European sailors throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, it has always been an uphill battle for the United States in this event.
As for the uber-competitive Finn class, Luke Muller, a former U.S. Laser national champ, will be sailing his first Olympics in what may very possibly be the Finn’s last Olympic appearance. Muller is hoping to catch some more of the fire he used to beat out 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist Caleb Paine. However, the Gold Cup last spring was one of his only preparation events, meaning it’s going to be tough sledding for him as well.
Finally, if there is another true standout among the American underdogs, it’s the Nacra 17 team of Riley Gibbs and Anna Weiss. Gibbs and Weiss are both graduates of US Sailing’s Olympic Development Program (ODP), created in the wake of team’s recent disappointing Olympic performances to fast track young talent with high-caliber coaching and international racing experience. The pair are uniquely suited to the Nacra 17, which was converted to a foiling class in the wake of the Rio Olympics and is the only sailing class at the Olympics that combines male and female sailors. Gibbs, in particular, is a professional sailor on the SailGP circuit, racing foiling ex-America’s Cup catamarans, and Weiss is a top-level competitive rower. The pair has logged a number of wins of late completing against some of the world’s top sailors and could be one of the big surprises of the upcoming Games.
THE MENTAL GAME
The 49er FX team of Roble and Shea won its selection and a bronze medal at the 2020 world championships in Geelong, Australia, just before the world shut down. Central to their emotional selection was a victory over the U.S. team of Paris Henken and (2008 Laser Radial) gold medalist Anna Tobias—the result of a medal race that saw the teams clashing in a wild, 20-knot leeward mark rounding that ultimately determined the selection.
“Looking back on the trials over a year later, I am so grateful that Paris and Anna sailed as well as they did, because they lit a fire under us,” says Shea, who trained with Roble in Lanzarote, Spain, throughout the spring. She emphasizes, though, that while the 2020 worlds truly saw the team put all the pieces together at a major regatta, that doesn’t guarantee a medal position.
“We plan on taking the regatta race by race, just like every other regatta,” says Shea. “There will be a lot of things we can’t control that might feel unusual to us at the Olympics, but the best we can do is prepare ourselves to be mentally tough and ready to race.”
Also, having to contend with the mental challenge of variables outside of his control has been McNay, who says it’s been hard at times during the pandemic not to think about how someone else might be gaining an advantage. “The Europeans were able to have strong training groups last year and even have practice regattas. It was a bit tough to look on from afar. Half my mind was saying, ‘I wish I was there,’” he says of his mindset during the past year’s many lockdowns.
That said, these kinds of “control” issues are hardly unique, either to the upcoming Olympics or any major sporting event for that matter. (As a side note: with the 2020 quadrennium delayed, the cycle has not only become the longest seen by Olympic athletes, but the upcoming 2024 cycle will also be the shortest. Have fun future Olympians!)
“The biggest challenge is the same as always, really,” says sports psychologist Tim Herzog who has worked with McNay and Hughes. “Accept the uncontrollable and shift to the controllable. The problem has been, early on, none of that was clear. Whether they had their foot on the accelerator going into the Games last spring or not, to slowly rev things up again has been welcome.”
Same thing with the 470 team of Barnes and Dallman-Weiss. “We tend to be planners in the United States, and our coach, Robby Bisi helped us realize that it’s OK to not know what the next few weeks will bring,” Dallman-Weiss says. “All three of us worked closely with sports psychologists to help conquer fears and stress, and we all leaned on each other pretty heavily at different times.”
The American team, like other nationals teams, has grabbed every opportunity to improve leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, and in today’s world, this means truly working as a “team” as opposed to just an assemblage of individual crews. Shea’s reference to her relationship with the runners-up for the 49er FX slot, for example, illustrates the importance of depth.
Similarly, Cayard points to the “squad” approach chosen by the five 49er crews on the U.S. Sailing Team. Training together, sharing data and resources, he says, is the future of both the team and what he hopes will be a winning culture, not just in the short term, but in the years to come.
“Charlotte Rose won three [Laser] Radial golds at the youth worlds,” says Cayard. “And she just lost out to Paige. The Cowles sisters [Emma and Carmen] in the 470 also a huge future. The ODP has done its job, made an impact, and we now have a pipeline of talent.”
That said, and despite the ODP and the rise of squads, U.S. sailors are known for taking matters into their own hands and can still be found following an individualist path. Muller, for example, recently started working with British Finn coach Mark Andrews, someone outside the US Sailing ranks, and McNay and Hughes have also shifted coaches.
“Last quad we had Morgan Reeser, an experienced coach handing down wisdom,” says McNay. “Now we have Thomas Barrows [a former classmate at Yale] as coach. He has a collaborative approach, keen observation and uniquely current skills.”
This brings us back to the present the 2020 Games, which are now just around the corner. Asked if, given his veteran status, the flavor of this games will be more about enjoying the moment than strictly focusing on the process, McNay takes a deep, slow breath and chuckles. Speaking through his smile, he says, “The process and being in the moment are not in conflict with each other. A great process allows you to be alert and aware of the moment and take it all in, with the true goal of being better on the last day than you were on the first one.”
When asked to be more specific about his and Hughes’ approach to the Tokyo Olympics, pulls a point together the way only a veteran campaigner can. “Our best events are really, really hard work, and we’re exhausted at the end,” he says. “Our goal is to come in with enough freshness and intensity level to finish the event strong.”
If that statement seems simple, it’s not. Just the opposite. It’s not just getting plenty of rest, and at this point, it’s not just “experience,” either. Going into his fourth Olympic regatta, McNay is looking to turn his countless hours on the water into something more akin to wisdom—a competitive advantage Cayard and the rest of the US Sailing Team is hoping to see accrue to many more American sailors in the future. As for Japan? “Our senior campaigners have all the capabilities,” says Cayard. “They need to go to Tokyo and say they want to have the best regatta of their lives, and they’ll win. They have the potential to make that next step. Building a regatta brick by brick.”
Sailing Conditions on Sagami Bay
Enoshima is located in the northeast corner of Sagami Bay, an area that can dish up a wide range of sailing conditions. According to U.S. Sailing Team meteorologist, Chelsea Carlson, founder of Sea-Tactics (sea-tactics.com) “typical” late-summer conditions in the area include gentle seas and a light southwesterly that can build to anywhere from 6 to 14 knots as the sea breeze gets established in the early afternoon. However, things can vary dramatically due to the fact the bay opens directly onto the open Pacific.
Enoshima’s tidal range, for example, is only about 3ft. However, eddies from the northeast-flowing Kuroshio Current, located about 30 miles offshore, can still create unpredictable currents in the area of the regatta’s six course areas. Then there are the typhoons that can sweep through the Enoshima area in late summer. According to Carlson, even a typhoon a good hundred miles away can affect Enoshima, as the swells it generates can create waves close inshore up to 8ft.
Interestingly, Carlson says the weather patterns are such that once established they can stay in place for up to a week, at which point you might get something completely different. “It’s one of those venues where it can really be a mixed bag,” she says. “During the Games period we can see anything up to 20 to 30 knots and squally…it can get pretty gnarly.”
Adding to all this is the temperature. According to Carlson, this is a part of the world that not only gets hot but can be incredibly humid as well. Think 100-plus degree weather in sticky, South Florida. That said, during part of the 2019 Olympic test regatta that was held there, much of the time the weather was overcast and relatively cool.
Finally, in an interesting twist, the sailors competing in the Enoshima Olympic regatta are expressly forbidden from sailing out onto the course area in the morning and racing will only take place in the afternoon. There are two reasons for this: 1) organizers want to ensure the sea breeze has a chance to get established before they start racing and 2) morning hours are being reserved for the local fishing fleet, which plies its trade in the heart of the racing area. Welcome to Enoshima!—Adam Cort
The Enoshima Olympic Regatta
Enoshima, Japan, is located about 30 miles southwest of Tokyo, and Enoshima Yacht Harbor, originally built for the 1964 Games, is located on what is essentially a small island connected by a short bridge to the mainland. Organizers have six different race areas to choose from, located to the south and east of the island, and racing will start around noon each day.
The regatta begins July 25 with the RS:X Laser and Laser Radial classes on the “Enoshima” and “Kamakura” courses (the two courses closest to the mainland) and concludes 12 days later with medal racing in the men’s and women’s 470 classes. An estimated 350 sailors will be taking part in 10 different events, staggered over the course of the roughly two-week regatta. Weather permitting, there will be two or three races per day (though up to four races are possible in the 49er, 49er FX and Nacra 17 classes) with 10 or 12 races overall, depending on the class. In all classes, who gets bronze, silver and gold will be decided in a medal race between the top-10 teams in each fleet.
At press time, a specific broadcast schedule, like so much of this Olympics, remained up in the air. Visit the US Sailing site (ussailing.org) or the Tokyo Olympics site (olympics.com) for details. For ongoing real-time coverage of the event, be sure to also check-in at the SAIL magazine website, sailmagazine.com.
The U.S. Olympic Sailing Team
RS:X - Windsurfer (Women) Farrah Hall
RS:X - Windsurfer (Men) Pedro Pascual
Laser - One Person Dinghy (Men) Charlie Buckingham
Laser Radial - One Person Dinghy (Women) Paige Railey
Finn - One Person Dinghy (Heavyweight) (Men) Luke Muller
470 - Two Person Dinghy (Women) Lara Dallman-Weiss, Nikki Barnes
470 – Two Person Dinghy (Men) David Hughes, Stu McNay
Nacra 17 Foiling Mixed Multihull Anna Weis, Riley Gibbs
49er FX - Skiff (Women) Maggie Shea, Stephanie Roble
49er - Skiff (Men) Nevin Snow, Dane Wilson*
* Ed Note: At press time, the U.S. Team had not yet secured a spot in the 49er event. However, it was the first alternate if one of the teams that had qualified failed to make it to the Olympic regatta.