Meet the New Boss; Not the Same as the Old Boss?
With seven years as a member of US Sailing's Olympic Sailing Committee, and double that as an industry insider, many see former Olympic hopeful Josh Adams as ideally qualified to take over leadership of the U.S. Olympic Sailing program. Others feel his appointment will perpetuate the philosophies that left the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider without a medal in the 2012 Olympics.
Courtesy Us Sailing
Former Sail publisher and 1996 Olympic Trials runner-up Josh Adams is the first full-time director for the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.
On the surface, it may look like Josh Adams is walking into a hornet’s nest. The incoming managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing inherits a team that, for the first time since 1936, returned home from an Olympic regatta without a single medal. The performance has made the team—and Adams’ hiring—the subject of significant scrutiny on the homefront. But a deeper look reveals the situation to be much less perilous for Adams, a former All-American sailor at Tufts University who comes to the team after a career at Sail magazine, including the last seven as publisher. Title sponsor Sperry Top-Sider, which signed on last spring, is committed through the next four years. Top athletes such as Paige Railey and Anna Tunnicliffe are already looking toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and the likely lineup for that regatta features four new classes, including kiteboard racing, a sport where the United States has proven to be quite competitive on the world circuit, albeit in a sport very much in its infancy. And with no medals in 2012, there’s nowhere for the team to go but up.
**In the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials, you were second in the Men’s 470 class with Bob Merrick. Without getting too deep, because we have a lot to cover, what are the lasting impressions that experience left with you?
**We chose the 470 while we were still in college [Adams graduated from Tufts in 1994], because it was the easiest boat for us to transition to from the boats that we were sailing. We had sailed a lot of International 420s and then collegiate boats. We were a largely independent, young team, and fairly typical for Olympic sailors of that period. We were basically on our own; we got some great coaching from the Olympic program, but as far as funding and establishing the direction of our team—how we were going to train and improve our speed and technique—we were all on our own.
**Four years later, Bob sailed with Paul Foerster in the 2000 Olympics and won silver. What was it like watching that experience unfold?
**Bob and I grew up together, as sailors, friends. And so, on a personal level, I was ecstatic for Bob. And we’ve always joked that after the Savannah quad, Bob just needed a better helmsman. And he got one of the best. Paul’s one of the great American sailors in both one-design and high performance dinghies. And he just brought this level of experience and level of focus on technical development, so it was great to follow, and I was very happy for Bob.
**Did you ever look at that—and I don’t want to say you were jealous of his success—but did you ever think, “Boy, I wish I’d kept going.” You chose a different path; you focused on your career, but did his success awaken any pangs of regret?
**No. Going back to Savannah, we finished second in the Olympic Trials, and then our training partners, Kris Stookey and Louise Van Voorhis won the women’s Trials, so we stayed down there and trained with them all the way up to the Games. And then Bob and I decided: “Let’s give it a couple months to decompress and get away from it for a while, and then let’s make our decision.” And when we came together in the fall, I knew right away that I was done with the 470. A big reason for that was actually physical. I was a little big for the boat, and it wasn’t something that I wanted to continue—staying at fighting weight. So, with that being a big part of the decision process, there was no regret.
**Okay. Let’s look forward here. You are taking over for Dean Brenner, but that doesn’t tell the whole truth, because this is a bit of a new job, a new position. Give us the job description for your position, which, if I have it correct, is the managing director of the U.S. Olympic Team, or the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider.
**I’m the managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing. That’s my official title. And we—on the Olympic Sailing Committee, which I’ve been a member of since 2005—knew years ago that we were at a point where the leadership of U.S. Olympic Sailing needed to be professionalized. The demands of the job, the scope and size of the program, are big enough that it really has to be a full-time job. We needed to move away from the volunteer aspect of the leadership that we had had to some extent. So that fundamental decision was made at the board level of US Sailing, and with the full endorsement and support of the Olympic Sailing Committee, to shift responsibilities of program management from the Olympic Sailing Committee Chair, to the full-time position. [ed.’s note: Adams clarified by email that his position will no longer be the chair of US Sailing’s Olympic Sailing Committee. “I wanted to point out that we will also be appointing a new OSC Chair. The OSC will function as an advisory board to the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program. The chair, functioning in a different role than what Dean has, will be the senior adviser of that group. Chair appointment TBA.”]
**Dean mentioned in Weymouth that he had a two-term limit on his job; is that changed with this new role that you’re filling?
**This is a job for life, isn’t it? [Laughs]. Ah, no, in all seriousness, both US Sailing and I are committed to Rio, but this job can go multiple quads, and I would like to see it go multiple quads. It’s a full-time job; there’s no term-limit on it.
**What are the differences maybe in the job now to the job Dean has been doing for the last eight years? He went from a volunteer, part-time position in 2004 to 2008 quad to a paid part-time position for the last four years. How will your job, which is now full-time, differ from his?
**Well, it won’t differ in that I take on the full scope of his responsibilities. So, everything that Dean was responsible for, I will be responsible for going forward. And so I will be responsible for the budget, for running the commercial program, and all of the revenue aspects of Olympic Sailing. Managing the Olympic staff, and so on.
**So what is it that makes you think you’re the right person for this job? How would you sell yourself to the cynical person who’s looking at you and wondering why you got the job as opposed to somebody else?
**Okay, fair question. Well, I have a deep passion for and experience in Olympic sailing, and Olympic class boats. And we talked about Savannah and my experience in the ’96 quad, which I should also note was an incredible experience because the world came to North America, which made it easier for a young team to compete, because the Games were in North America. But my Olympic experience actually goes back to 1988 as a young kid growing up in Newport, R.I. The Olympic Trials, back when it was a one-regatta event, came to Newport, and that’s when I bought my first 470, got the bug, and have been hooked on Olympic sailing ever since. So after ’96, I stayed close to the program, through friends who were both sailors and coaches, and then got involved in the management of Olympic sailing through my experience on the Olympic Sailing Committee. And I think that background over a couple decades in Olympic Sailing really has me well prepared for the whole experience. I’ve been a part of the program as a sailor, and I’ve been a part of the program from the management perspective. Also, my background in media, has given me 15 years of building partnerships, many of which will translate well in this job. When you’re the publisher of a media brand, you’re busy selling a lot of advertising and building a lot of marketing partnerships. Well, some of those same companies that I have worked with also support the Olympic program. It’s tough to put a number on it, but if you break down where I’ll spend my time, as the leader of U.S. Olympic Sailing, I’ll probably spend 70 percent of my time focused on revenue, and focused on all of our partnerships. And my experience in media, and sailing media, has me well prepared for that.
**This appointment was made before the Olympic Games. So I don’t think it’s fair to criticize your selection in light of the team’s disappointing performance in Weymouth, to say: “You are a part of this system that produced the most disappointing performance in U.S. Olympic Sailing in 60 years, and now you’re leading the charge.” But there is a strong feeling out there that with your hire, US Sailing is perpetuating the establishment that didn’t get us medals in 2012. What is your reaction to that?
**Well my reaction to that is that people will draw their own conclusions. Over time, people will see what kind of leader I am, and what kind of program I’m running, and what kind of strategy we put together. But to look at it in that simple light—that there’s no actual change in this change—it’s just a little premature to do that. I’m pretty confident in my ability to lead, and to lead a new strategy for this program, and to make changes where change is necessary. I think that over time, people will have a larger body of work from me to judge. At that point, let them judge away.
**We’ll get into that strategy in a second. Let’s look at the Olympics this year. You were in England for part of the regatta. What was your gut reaction to the U.S. performance at Weymouth?
**Disappointment, like anyone involved in the Olympic program. I was disappointed in the results and for our sailors, who trained very hard.
**Gary Jobson’s commissioned a panel to look at the 2012 Olympics. You are involved, some names from Olympics past like Andy Kostanecki, Ed Adams, and Jonathan McKee, and some more current Olympians such as Tim Wadlow and Andrew Campbell. That panel’s conclusions are still a bit down the road. Do you have any kind of first-take impressions on what led to this performance by the U.S. Sailing Team?
**We need to let the review process play out completely before we really draw any conclusions. I think the best way to go about this is to talk to all audiences who were close to it, especially the sailors; get their feedback before we really draw conclusions. As you noted, we’re pretty deep into the review process of the Olympic program, and we have a great group of talented and experienced people who have been involved in Olympic sailing, at many different levels: sailing, coaching, and also on the management side. This is going to be a comprehensive look at the Olympic program. It’s not just a focus on Weymouth. It’s a look at the entire quad, and even before this quad, and it’s a look at every aspect of the program. And we’ll make sure that all the key players in U.S. Olympic Sailing have a say. Once we get that, that body of information compiled, then we’ll be able to draw some conclusions about the program itself; it’ll give us a better understanding of what led to our performance in Weymouth, and then we’ll influence strategy going forward.
**Are you the right person to lead this panel, given that you’ve been on the Olympic Committee for seven years now, and you’re now the incoming director? It seems that if you wanted to get a really independent opinion, you would step away from people who were so involved with the infrastructure of the program itself.
**I strongly believe that I’m the right person to lead it. When we’re done with this review, there’s going to be a bunch of conclusions, and a set of recommendations that we’ll present back to the board and to the Olympic Sailing Committee. I want to use that body of information to influence our strategic direction. I want it to be as complete as possible, because this is a useful piece of information that we’ll be able to go back to throughout the entire quad. If you look at the alternatives to what you’re saying, which is having a completely independent panel without my involvement at all, then I might be handed a document with recommendations with less familiarity with how the review process went. And I may not be as excited to follow those recommendations. Keep in mind that there’s nine individuals on this panel. All have some connection over time to Olympic Sailing, but they are truly independent of the current program. Of the nine, only two have been on the Olympic Sailing Committee within the last 12 years.
**What do you hope this panel comes away with, what recommendations are you looking for? Are you looking for sweeping changes, or tweaks? Are you looking for more athlete feedback? What do you hope is the biggest thing that you get out of this review?
**It’s a great question. And there are two key areas that I’m really looking forward to hearing about. [One is] getting a real and complete understanding of our youth development process as it currently stands. There tends to be a lot of hand wringing in this country over the youth development process and for good reason, because in some ways it’s getting better, but in some ways there’s a disconnect between youth sailing and the Olympic path. And that’s something that I want to change, and something that needs to improve for long-term success. Another area is how we approach the performance side and how we prepare the members of US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider. This is where an independent panel can be really helpful. Many of the people on this panel have experienced past strategies, for developing sailors and classes. They come at it from both a sailing and a coaching perspective. We want to be able to combine the conclusions and the recommendations that the panel makes on the performance side of the program, with the debrief that we will get from the coaches following Weymouth.
**Dean Brenner had your job for the past eight years. When the hubbub dies down, he will probably be remembered for a couple things, the first of which is raising a lot of money, and putting the U.S. Team back on par with some of the top teams in the world in terms of funding. The second is turning the job of leading the team into a full-time job. I think history will look favorably on what he’s done. How do you leave your stamp on this team?
**I would like to have people look back on U.S. Olympic Sailing on my watch, and have it be known as the period in which we developed sustainable performance. And created a system that allowed us to continually develop sailors’ classes. I think at the end of the day, that’s what I’d like us to achieve, which is sustainable performance; and an effective long-term youth development strategy.
**Okay. That’s pretty succinct there.
**And just to elaborate, whenever I talk about the performance side of U.S. Olympic Sailing, it really includes all aspects of the program. It includes a huge youth development component; it includes everything we’re doing on the revenue side, because at the end of the day our sponsors and our donors need to be on board with our performance strategy, and they need to support it. Those will be our two areas of focus, and hopefully that is what the program will be remembered for, while I was on my watch.
**And how much of that is dependent on money?
**The funding side of Olympic Sailing is a huge part of it. We have great support from our sponsors, our donors, and the USOC, that we need to maintain, and we need to continue to grow. But I’ll also say that money is not the only answer. We have to make good decisions with the money that we raise.
**As many people know, the U.S. made a big change this past quad, going with an international system of regattas, which is probably more in line with what most countries do, to select the Olympic team. Previously the U.S. had used a lone domestic regatta. I think it was the correct decision. If there is one thing about it, though, I would criticize, it’s the distance between the regattas, which required our athletes to peak basically three times in the space of 14 months, for two Trials regattas that were eight months apart [Skandia Sail For Gold in June 2011 and the ISAF Worlds in December 2011], and then the Olympics. What do you think of the Trials, and what changes might you implement there?
**There’s a couple different ways of looking at that gap between Sail for Gold and Perth. On the positive side, it gave sailors time to develop equipment. They had time to look at new spars, and sails. So while they have to peak again, they also have time to develop, which we viewed as a positive. In general, our Trials process this time around was a huge step forward. We were the last country in the world to move to an international event series, and in the end, we picked a lot of the right sailors for the classes that were in Weymouth. Having said that, as part of this review process, we’re going to get a lot of feedback from sailors and coaches on the timing of it, on the structure of it, and all that information will make its way to the Olympic Sailing Committee, and we’ll quickly start to make plans for the Trial system for Rio. It’s a clean slate. We’ll look at everything. There are a lot of other unique Trials systems out there that we’ll look at and debate. At the end of the day, we’re going to stick to this general approach of using international events.
**We’re looking ahead to an Olympics that could well have 40 percent new classes: the two kiteboarding events, women’s skiff, and the coed multihull. How do you jumpstart those classes? What’s the best way to take advantage of the opportunity that exists there?
**The word there is opportunity. This is going to be a really neat quad; if all the decisions on classes hold up, we’re looking at 40 percent change in Olympic classes, and that’s unprecedented. You can also characterize these sweeping changes as finally making Olympic sailing a high-performance sailing competition, a high-performance dinghy competition. Look at the largest boat now: a 17-foot, lightweight catamaran. One aspect that is really positive and will help our preparation for Rio is the fact that there’s more symmetry in classes. So you’ve got the Laser, Laser Radial; men’s and women’s 470; men’s and women’s skiff; men’s and women’s kite. And that’s great symmetry, and we’re going to look to become as sufficient as we can with the training of our classes, which means making sure that each class is building a base knowledge of how to develop the boats, and the technique for sailing them, and that all of that information gets passed on across to the men’s and women’s teams, and also the youth development teams.
**U.S. Olympic sailing has always a strong do-it-yourself ethic. Even in the past quad, there was a lot more support for the athletes, but getting to that Olympic level was often something athletes had to do on their own. I’m betting that the big Olympic teams over in Europe: the Dutch, the Brits, the French, possibly the Germans; also Australia and New Zealand, they’re going to be throwing a lot of money at these classes, the cats and the kiteboarding. Do you match that simply with money? How do you jumpstart our athletes? If you wait for athletes of pull their campaign together and distinguish themselves, it may be too late.
**You’re right. And really, it goes class-by-class. There will be some classes where we’re going to have a solid concentration of sailors, and it makes it easier to get them all to work together, and to support them. And there will be other classes where we’ll need to be a little more hands-on, and make the opportunities happen for the sailors.
**What about retaining your top athletes? How you keep people like Anna Tunnicliffe, Zach Railey, Paige Railey, Erik Storck and Trevor Moore, Sarah Lihan ... These are people who are maybe on the fence about continuing with another Olympic campaign. How do you keep them on the team so their experience in 2012 doesn’t go to waste?
**Well, I think we’ve seen success in that area, and the easiest way is to make sure they get good financial support from the program. But the support that they get from U.S. Olympic Program goes beyond just money. There are a lot of other resources they get from the program, especially when they jump to a new class. We’re at a point now where these multiple campaigners—we’ll use the example of Anna Tunnicliffe and Zach Railey—they need to really commit themselves to it. Gone are the days where you hop into a class and sail for a year and a half, or two years. It’s really hard to compete on the international level by taking that approach these days. So, we’ll do everything we can to help them continue on.
**How much do you potentially bend the rules for these people? For the past four years, the funding was very result-oriented, it was very straight-forward. I think a lot of people like that. But it did potentially leave some athletes maybe out on a limb, or a little bit underfunded for a variety of reasons. When you look at these elite athletes, guys who have done two or three Olympic campaigns, how much do you tailor the Team or the rule to them?
**If we’re going to achieve sustainable performance in U.S. Olympic Sailing, we need to broaden the base of sailors that gets involved in Olympic classes. There has to be a balance there between supporting our top sailors, supporting up-and-coming sailors, and also supporting classes. So, we’re going to build a strategy that will ensure that our top sailors who have earned it on a performance basis, and earned it on the water, that they get the support they need, all the way to Rio. At the same time, we want to build more class depth and a broader base of Olympic sailors. And that means coming up with a strategy that reaches more sailors.
**One of the other big decisions that was made, which was a big departure from the past for the U.S. Team, was the size of the coaching staff. If you go back four years or eight years, the full-time U.S. staff was two or three or maybe four coaches. This time there were a lot more guys hired for the quad, which takes money that could go to the sailors to hire coaches of their own choice. What do you think about that decision, and do you plan on having such a large full-time, or on-retainer staff as you did last time?
**The eternal debate in Olympic Sailing is how much money to spend on sailors versus how much money to spend on coaching. Both are important, and the argument can be made that money spent on coaching is money being spent on sailors. As we start to build our strategy for this quad, we will come up with a specific plan for how we allocate coaching funds, and how that balances with the money that’s going to sailors. We need to complete our review before we make decisions like that, but it is a really important issue that we’ll evaluate.
**We mentioned earlier the 40 percent new classes, that this is if the vote holds--which is a good point, because there is obviously quite a big push to reinstate the windsurfers, the Stars are angling to get back in, so is women’s match racing. US Sailing has been criticized in the past for the influence it’s exerted over these decisions. What do you think US Sailing’s role should be when it comes to deciding the Olympic classes? We have an outsized amount of power on the ISAF Council. How much should we influence the decisions, and what should be the factors in deciding how we influence the decisions?
**When those decisions are made, there’s a couple things that come into play; what’s best for sailing, and what’s best for U.S. Olympic Sailing. My philosophy on class choice is, we will prepare U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider for whatever classes, for whatever Olympic fleets there are in Rio. We’re not going to lose a lot of sleep over the politics behind, or the decisions made about the classes.
Do you think that US Sailing should be pushing ISAF to pick classes where it feels the U.S. has an advantage? In the past the **U.S. delegation has gone [to the ISAF annual meeting] and pushed for a slate of classes that favors our particular skill set, or athletes. Is that something that we should continue to do?
**I think that oversimplifies it a little bit. We don’t just push for classes that give us the best chance at medaling. We do consider what is good for sailing, and what is good for sailing in the U.S.