If there was a moment that gave the US Sailing Team hope to break a major Olympic medal dry spell, it was the first day of the 49er FX worlds in New Zealand last December. Paris Henken and Anna Tobias had a rough 18th in race one, then banged out two bullets and a fifth to lead the fleet that contained the reigning Olympic medalist teams. Their smooth tacks in the hyper-shifty waters of Auckland, seen in the live, multi-camera coverage online, showed a poise and strength that Americans have been desperate to see. They were sailing against the best, and they were comfortably beating them all.
Just weeks before in the Oceania Championships, teammates Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea had ranged in and out of medal contention, ending with bronze. The Men’s 49er squad, four teams packed with young talent, started both the Oceania championships and the worlds with top-five places. But at both championships, many of the Americans who started hot, stumbled into the teens, with only Henken and Tobias holding onto a top 10 place at the worlds.
Only a few months away from the Tokyo Olympics and the sailing events at Enoshima, this winter’s championships are being used as part of the U.S. selection trials. With recent moments of brilliance and a deep desire to put the US Sailing Team back on the map, the Americans are looking more promising than they have in years. (Only a few months away from the Tokyo Olympics and the sailing events at Enoshima, this winter’s championships (including the Miami World Cup series January 19-25) are being used as part of the U.S. selection trials.)
Olympian Sally Barkow recently took over leadership as the Olympic Team coach. And with the first graduates from the Olympic Development Program, a pipeline providing elite coaching from Optimists up to the Olympic team, 2020 may finally see a break in the drought.
“It’s so basic,” says Luther Carpenter, a 30-year veteran sailing team coach. “If we can just get sailors to focus on the details of the task at hand, they deliver.” Carpenter was eagerly reading Roble and Shea’s quotes after their medal performance in the FX this winter. “They were saying, ‘We were focused on the chop, the current, executing the starts,’ and I was like, yes, you get a medal! Staying focused on the details at hand and not worrying about funding or your selection. Now that’s working.”
Despite low digits in the scorelines this winter, the United States is certainly in a comeback mode. The country has won only a single medal since 2012, the year no medals were won for the first time in 70 years.
After that devastating experience in London 2012, US Sailing doubled down on its commitment with talent development from the ground up in the form of a long-term strategy called the Olympic Development Program. The brainchild of top South American junior coach Leandro Spina, the program is focused on mentoring, connecting with young sailors and raising funds to support their training.
“No longer are we starting Olympic campaigns after college,” says Carpenter, who has coached multiple medalists. “From Optimists up they are receiving top-level coaching and technical support. They graduate to the adult Olympic classes, and they are used to the professional world of support.”
Leading selection so far in the Radial is Charlotte Rose, a 19-year-old from Texas. She was the top U.S. sailor at the 2019 worlds in Japan and is a proof of concept that the ODP is working. According to Carpenter, she has received the most complete training since a young age from psychology to fitness. And most of the sailors on the US Sailing Team today have been mentored at some stage in their early career by Spina and ODP coaches.
Today, with extreme professionalism entering the sport, indicators for medal performance are more precise. Double 470 gold medalist Malcolm Page, former head of the U.S. team, instituted a three-stage (early, mid and late) Olympic selection process that incentivizes podium finishes the year before the Olympics. Early selection is aggressive.
To be selected early, a sailor must place in the top three in one of several Olympic-class events, including the world championships and the Olympic test event in the host country. The cumulative score must also be seven points or less. Do this, and the next year for the sailor includes full support for training and events without the worry of beating out another American for the spot. That’s where most of the team is now.
This early selection criteria is an impressive indicator of medal potential. One hundred percent of the Rio gold medalists won a world championship within the quadrennium before those Games. Of the other 20 medals, 70 percent had won a world championship in their class, and of the remaining 30 percent, four of the six medalists had been on the podium at world championships.
The veterans of the U.S. team, Men’s 470 sailor Stu McNay and Radial sailor Paige Railey, have gone to the Olympics three times and two times respectively, with the 470 duo of McNay and David Hughes placing a heartbreaking fourth in Rio.
McNay and Hughes have little competition for the U.S. berth, and Carpenter sees their experience going a long way this time, though the strongest 15 in that class seem to play “musical chairs” at the top of the fleet. “For them, we are working on how to focus on this event with a fresh mindset,” he says.
Though Railey trails in the selection process along with youth world champion Erika Reineke, she is always considered a contender. Her recent announcement about her health problems has revealed a stumbling block for her. But her former leader is optimistic. “I truly believe Paige can be among the [2020 medalists] if she sorts out her health problems,” says Page. “She has the skill level, talent and body size. At the moment she’s lacking the engine of the other girls.”
In the Finn, Paine and Muller are in a close battle for selection, and both have had events near the top of the fleet. Same for Laser sailors Charlie Buckingham and Christopher Barnard. Buckingham has a miraculous consistency in the top 10 at each event, and Barnard won gold at Palma Mallorca’s Olympic regatta last spring.
This winter’s 49er and 49erFX results are encouraging for the United States, and of the two FX teams and four 49er teams in contention, Carpenter says it’s too close to call on who will go to Tokyo. “Frankly it’s refreshing,” he says of the group. “It’s a pleasure to see us up there competing right next to Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (Rio gold medalists).”
The women’s 470, historically a strong event for Americans (the United States won the first-ever 470 women’s gold in 1988), is in a building phase after several veterans moved out of competition. The result has been a virtual tie in the selection trials for three teams.
The newest Olympic class, the mixed Nacra 17, has become a hydrofoiling class since Rio. Though Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee had a stellar medal race in Rio, they’ve moved on. The three teams that competed at the 2019 worlds in New Zealand are beginning their march toward the top of the fleet. Riley Gibbs and Anna Weis started off the event with a 5, 2, 2, 1 scoreline before dropping into the teens.
In the RSX windsurfer, which will be making its last Olympic appearance before the shift to windfoiling boards in 2024, both Pedro Pascual and Farrah Hall have yet to qualify to represent the country. Pascual has been training with top windsurfers in Spain, and Carpenter says he has finally reached the fitness to compete at the top level.
Performance of the U.S. sailors in 2019 has proven on par with the top Olympians, but Carpenter says that putting together a consistent series is the elusive goal. For McNay and Hughes, they’ve been there before. They’ve beaten the best. And so has Railey. Thanks to the ODP and an increased effort with technical and consolidated training, the young sailing team members are leapfrogging their way up the ladder.
Carpenter says it’s a “fool’s game” trying to predict how many medals the United States will win in Tokyo next summer. “It’s about going after all the tangibles. We spent five days in Miami in October with Stu and Dave. It’s amazing how we morphed their technique into something faster and higher.”