No Stranger to the Grind
No Stranger to the Grind
Amanda Clark has spent nearly 15 years as a member of the U.S. Sailing Team Alphagraphics. But that won't make winning a berth on the 2012 Olympic team any easier, which is just fine by her. From our November/December 2011 issue.
Amanda Clark, one of the top women’s 470 skippers in the world, has just started talking about boatwork when her husband, Greg Nissen, files an objection. Nissen is the director of Camp Quinipet, a bucolic retreat and youth camp on the northwest corner of Shelter Island, N.Y. One of his annual fall tasks is to patch up the camp’s aging fleet of sailboats. “For me,” he says, leaning back in his chair in the cozy one-floor house afforded the camp’s top dog, “boatwork is a big tub of epoxy and a trowel.
“For you girls, boatwork is walking around your boat in a bikini and discussing whether this cleat or that cleat should be moved 5 mm to the left or right. You can do a day of ‘boatwork’ without taking the cover off the boat.” Then he laughs, as do Clark and Sarah Lihan, her crew. There is apparently at least a little truth to his statement.
However, the fact is that few people know the value of hard work—on boats or otherwise—better than Clark. From an age when most kids struggle to describe a “blue collar work ethic,” Clark has embodied it.
She’s not yet 30, but has spent nearly half her life on the U.S. Sailing Team, 14 years in pursuit of that elusive hunk of metal that can define, in one bold stroke, an athletic career.
Just as with any individual sport, getting to an Olympic regatta is largely a solitary pursuit. Coaches and partners will come and go. Parents can only push someone so far. Without the relentless drive to work at it year in and year out, you will fall short. It took Clark 10 years to make her first Olympic team: a decade of sailing, and of fund-raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars required.
She walked in the opening ceremony at the Beijing National Stadium; she got her picture taken with Kobe Bryant. She had an Olympic experience. But she came home without a medal. She wants another chance. She wants to compete in Weymouth, England, next summer. That will take more hard work. Despite all her accolades, she and Lihan are facing an uphill battle to earn a chance to compete on dinghy sailing’s biggest stage.
A true harelegger—so named because of the foot speed needed to catch the ferries that are the only way on or off Shelter Island—needs to be born on island. Amanda Clark doesn’t qualify since she was born at nearby Southampton Hospital. But she’s never really lived anywhere else, and her roots run back to a paternal great-grandfather, who moved to Shelter Island to care take a private estate on what is now the Mashomack Nature Preserve. The diminutive Clark, who is disarmingly youthful even at 29, followed her older siblings onto the water. Her brother and sister left the sport for greener pastures—horseback riding, and soccer and lacrosse, respectively—but she was hooked. As soon as she was able, she would spend most of her free time sailing her Optimist out of the Shelter Island YC. Initially her dad would keep watch, pantomiming the competition in a small motorboat. “I don’t think I ever beat him,” Clark recalls with a smile. As a pre-teen, she would venture out on her own. She’d pack a sandwich, bike from her childhood home to the yacht club, launch her boat, and point her bow west or east, always sailing up current first. She’d stop for lunch on some remote beach—using her bailer as an anchor so she didn’t scratch the bottom of her boat—and then sail home.
“Amanda, from very early, was very self-sufficient,” says Ellen Clark, her mother. “She had to tie her shoes before any of [her peers], swim before any of the others. She thought nothing of putting a lot of hours out practicing in her Opti. She loved it, and she thrived.”
This passion quickly matured into an intense, and enduring, competitive fire. She wasn’t halfway through high school before she set her sights on the 2000 Olympics, making the U.S. Sailing Team in the Europe Dinghy at the age of 15, the youngest female ever to do so.