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Charlie Buckingham: Lessons Learned

An American Laser Olympian shares what he learned as he climbed to the top of his game and on to Rio.

August 10, 2016
olympic sailing

The Rio 2016 Olympic Sailing Competition

Charlie Buckingham competes in Day 2 of racing at the Olympic Games in Rio. Sailing Energy/World Sailing

The journey to the Olympics is long and daunting. There are more moments of ­defeat than triumph, so it’s easy to get caught up in results or the distance from the end goal. Focusing too much on these aspects takes the focus away from getting better at the little things that ­ultimately lead to better results and closer to the goal. By accepting the challenge ahead, you get into a better frame of mind to embrace the process. Accept the challenge. It’s what I’ve learned during my four-year Olympic campaign, and it is one of many other lessons I will take with me to Rio.

Learn the game
From all my youth sailing experiences, I learned that improvement came from spending time on the water. Studying and understanding the game gives me a clear idea of how things should be done, allowing me to be analytical about my performance. This allows me to set clear goals and objectives to improve my performance, giving more purpose to my training and competition. Instead of spending more time on the ­water hoping to improve, outworking my opponent with this mindset yields quicker improvement.

Do what works for you
Everybody has a different way of getting around the course. There are things you can learn from every approach, but never forget what you’ve done well to get there. I’ve been lucky to compete against great sailors and to be surrounded by experienced coaches. Each of them has a different way of looking at a racecourse. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to do things in a way that isn’t natural to you, or “forcing it.” Observe and take advice, then think about how it applies to your own game.

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Plan to be flexible
Sailboat ­races are in a constant state of flux. The fleet changes positions around you, the wind shifts and changes velocity, and you need to keep your own boat moving as fast as possible at all times. All of this makes it hard to plan the perfect approach in ­advance. Detailed plans can even give a false sense of security, causing one to ignore the present. Have the outcome in mind, but be open and ready to adapt to what is thrown at you during the race.

Keep it simple
Our sport has so many variables that it’s easy to get caught up in all the small ­details on race day. It’s important to be detailed and thorough, but mostly during preparation. When it comes to performing on race day, know the big-picture priorities and race with a clear mind. stay healthy Focusing on good nutrition and hydration in the face of long days on the water, or while traveling through multiple time zones, allows our minds and bodies to perform in suboptimal conditions. For the amount of time we spend in uncomfortable positions, either traveling or performing the physical tasks needed to sail our boats, there’s no limit to the amount of time needed for physical recovery in order to be near our best on the boat day after day.

Stay curious
Sailing is a sport with endless variables and possibilities. Surfing is similar, and I think there is something to be said about Kelly Slater’s mindset and approach. He’s won 11 world surfing titles over 20 years, and while doing so, he’s managed to stay on the forefront of progression in a sport where young pros are getting better. Reading about Kelly and hearing what other pros have to say about him, it’s clear he has a relentless sense of curiosity that allows him to continue developing and getting better, even in the face of his relatively old age and physical limitations.

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Enjoy the road
It helps to ­travel with people you enjoy being around. Olympic sailors spend so much time on the road that the people they surround themselves with can have a big impact on their ­experience. I’ve been lucky to spend the last four years traveling with Cy Thompson, from the Virgin Islands, and Andrew Lewis, from Trinidad and Tobago. I first met Cy through high school and college sailing, and met Andrew through Cy, as they knew each other from sailing in the Caribbean. We all share similar interests and get along well, which transformed our group from competitors and travel partners to a group of my closest friends.

Find your balance
When you’re an Olympic sailor, competitive sailing dominates your life. It’s important to stay in touch with outside interests so your day-to-day life isn’t solely dictated by what happens on the water. For me, that means being with family and friends, reading, listening to and discovering music, watching movies, traveling, and surfing.

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