SAIL Olympics Update: Assessing the U.S. Sailing Team’s efforts in Rio

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What to make of the U.S. Team’s showing at the 2016 Olympic sailing regatta? On the one hand, there’s good reason to celebrate Caleb Paine’s bronze medal in the Finn class, no mean feat given the sailors he was up against. On the other, there’s the inevitable disappointment at those other seemingly well-prepared U.S. efforts having come up short. Which in turn leads to the equally inevitable question: what does the future hold for U.S Olympic-class sailing?

"We are very proud of the effort this team submitted in Rio. We came ready to compete against the world's best and showed Team USA's ability to contend,” said Josh Adams, managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing, and those are anything but empty words given what “world’s best” meant in terms of the completion these past two weeks on Guanabara Bay.

In fact, if one thing stands out looking at the medals standings, it’s the truly extraordinary amount of experience on display, not just in competitive sailing, but Olympic-class sailing in particular.

Of Great Britain’s three medals, for example, two went to sailors who’d already won a previous Olympic medal: women’s 470 gold medalists Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark also won silver at the 2012 Olympic regatta in Weymouth, England, while men’s RS:X silver medalists Nick Dempsey won silver in 2012 as well. Not only that but the British medalist sailing in his first Olympics, Finn-class gold medalists Giles Scott, was in many ways the exception that proves the rule; since the only reason he didn’t compete in 2012 was because he was defeated in the preceding trials by his teammate, Weymouth gold medalist Sir Ben Ainslie.

Similarly, both of the medals awarded to the Dutch team went to sailors who’d also stood on the Olympic podium at the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth, England: Laser Radial sailor Marit Bouwmeester with a silver medal around her neck, and men’s RS:X sailor Dorian van Rijsselberghe with a gold.

This is not in any way to diminish the accomplishments of these sailors. Nor does it in any way suggest that medals come easily to these people. Just the opposite.

However, what it does suggest is that experience matters. That when the chips are down, the simple fact of having prevailed before in the zero-sum crucible that is Olympic-class sailings, gives you an advantage over those who haven’t.

Looking back, for example, on the way U.S. sailors Briana Provancha and Annie Haeger went from first to last in their medal race, in the process falling off the podium at the end of a hard-fought series, you can’t help but wonder if their youth and the fact that this was their first Olympics didn’t make a difference.

Midway through the second beat, when things started to all go wrong, they were neck and neck with Kiwi sailors Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie. And yet somehow the Kiwis ended up third over the line—enough to win them the silver—while Provancha and Haeger ended up in 10th sending them all the way back to seventh overall. Of course, for the U.S. sailors, this was their first time in an Olympic medal race, while Aleh and Powrie had been in this kind of a situation, having won gold in the women’s 470 class in Weymouth.

Along these same lines, their teammates Peter Burling and Blair Tuke won silver in 2012 in the 49er class, and in taking home gold this time around came out just ahead of the same team that had won gold the last time around, Australians Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen. The Laser class included none other that five-time Olympic medalist Robert Scheidt of Brazil, while Argentinian Nacra 17 skipper Santiago Lange’s gold-medal effort represents the third time he’s stood on an Olympic podium. The list goes on…

Which is not to say the U.S. Team or American sailors, in general, should give up. Just the opposite. The recently completely 2016 Olympic regatta was not only a visually stunning one, it also featured some of the most gifted sailors the Olympic movement has ever known. While the world celebrates the accomplishments of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, sailors from all countries should equally savor the sheer joy of watching such magnificent sailors as Burling, Tuke, Mills, Clark and Scott in action. To not be a part of this “Golden Age” of fiercely competitive Olympic class sailing would be to turn our backs not just on what it means to be strong sailors but to be a strong people in the best sense of the word.

In the wake of the 2012 Olympics, where U.S. sailors returned home empty handed, the team not only retrenched by reorganizing its training process and bringing in top-flight coaching talent, but put in place a long-term plan to ensure a ready supply of talented young sailors for years to come—much like those same squads that did so well in this most recent Olympics. This renewed effort has already born fruit in a number of strong finishes in a number of classes, medal count notwithstanding. To throw all this progress away, would a terrible waste.

The U.S. Team truly did a magnificent job down in Rio, and while they may not have brought home as many medals as some of the other teams, they are winners in the truest sense of the word who did our country proud. Moving forward, the only way the United States could actually “lose” the 2016 Olympic regatta in Rio, would be to give up on them now.

For complete results in the sailing events, click here.

Over Medal Count at the 2016 Olympic Sailing Regatta


August 2016


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