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.
With the benefit of hindsight, Clark says she never seriously doubted whether she would continue. Her mother, however, says it was a low moment.
“She has tremendous insight and calm,” says Ellen Clark, “but there are times when she’s still a young kid. The change of crew was extremely difficult, and there were times when she was going to quit.”
Instead, however, she went to work. She trialed three different crews before settling on Sarah Lihan, who herself was facing the difficult task of beating former Laser Radial world champion Paige Railey for the U.S. Olympic berth in that class. Lihan had no significant trapeze or spinnaker experience, and had never really been a crew. But she is young and talented. She also has something that can’t be taught: at 6'1"—7 inches taller than Mergenthaler—Lihan is the prototypical size for a 470 crew.
thought it was someone asking to get help loading a container,” says Lihan, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of the initial call from Clark. “I had my Laser training starting in three days. I said, ‘Can you get here tomorrow?’ And she did. It never felt like a tryout to me. As clueless and totally overwhelmed as I was when I came into the 470 boatpark, as soon as we got into the boat, it was a very nurturing experience. There’s no way I would’ve been able to do it had she not been such a great teacher.”
The Skandia Sail For Gold Regatta, which was the first of two events being used by US SAILING to select the Olympic team, was in four months, and Clark and Lihan were starting from scratch.
Simply getting the 470 around the racecourse wasn’t going to cut it. The other top U.S. team, Erin Maxwell and Kinsolving, have been sailing together since 2005, not long after Kinsolving finished fifth in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In January 2008, just a few months after finishing second at the 2007 U.S. Olympic Trials, Maxwell and Kinsolving won the Women’s 470 World Championship.
“Sarah’s just as much of a perfectionist,” says Clark, of Lihan. “I could see it right away that she had the same drive to perfect her skill of sailing. She’s very quick to pick up the process, then move forward and make it her own. We’re moving forward at such a quick rate together because she learns and takes on the information so well.”
At Clark and Lihan’s first regatta, the Princess Sofia in Palma, Spain, in March, they finished 19th while Maxwell and Kinsolving scored a fifth. At Hyères Week, a month later, Maxwell and Kinsolving were seventh, Clark and Lihan, 33rd. A similar disparity in the results at the Sail For Gold regatta would effectively end their Olympic hopes.
“They’re a very strong team,” says Clark. “We needed to keep [the difference between the two teams’ overall finishes] inside of 10 points.”
Maxwell and Kinsolving started strong at Sail For Gold and were leading the regatta after two races. But by the end there were just three places between the two teams: Maxwell and Kinsolving finished eighth, with Clark and Lihan in 11th.
“We put it together right before Sail for Gold,” says Clark. “We said, ‘We’re not going to try to learn anything new, let’s race with what we have and then take then next step after the regatta.’”
A month after Sail For Gold, Clark and Lihan beat Maxwell and Kinsolving for the first time, finishing eighth to their ninth at the 470 Women’s European Championships.
But that is still two places shy of the gap that Clark and Lihan will need at December’s ISAF World Championships in Perth, Australia, which is the second half of the U.S. Trials. At the business end of the women’s 470 fleet, two spots can only be earned with a lot of hard work. And Maxwell and Kinsolving will be working just as hard to maintain their advantage.
“I sailed Lasers for 12 years,” says Lihan. “In college, the doublehanded scene is a very different relationship, power and decision-making wise, than it is in the 470. It’s going to become one of our greatest strengths, when we can utilize each other’s skills around the racecourse.”
“Then it’s the little things,” adds Clark. “Really the same stuff I was working on with old Sarah, the stuff that never goes away. Getting better at tacking, at jibing.
“It’s one thing to get it right in practice; it’s another to get it right during a race when you’ve got a boat coming at you.”
Having closed a seemingly unbridgeable gap in a few months, it would be easy to say that the hard part is behind Clark and Lihan. But on the Olympic road, the hardest part is always ahead.