What was it that made the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics training camp so memorable, so unique? Was it the snow and sub-freezing temperature in Colorado Springs? The 6,000 feet of elevation? The fact the present and future hopes of U.S. Olympic sailing were assembled in a place nowhere near navigable water? Was it the synchronized swimming? The rope climb?
Stuart Streuli| |Kyle Rogachenko and a member of the U.S. Sailing Development Team participate in a team-building exercise in the U.S. Olympic Training Center gym in Colorado Springs, Colo. | All these factors did play a role, but the take-away was something less tangible and equally obvious: the U.S. Sailing Team is progressively developing into a team. The goals may still be individual-world championships, Olympic berths, and Olympic medals-but each athlete in Colorado Springs realized these are goals best achieved by working within the group.
At one point during the March camp I turned to a veteran member of the USSTAG staff and asked him what would’ve happened had this idea been pitched to the team 10 years ago. Granted this came during the most outrageous moment of the camp, when head coach Kenneth Andreasen divided the sailors into four groups and tasked them with creating and performing a 30-second synchronized swimming routine. But his response was instructive.
“They wouldn’t have done it,” he said, without a second of hesitation.
Part of this, he continued, was due to the singular importance of upwind boatspeed in old-school Olympic sailing. Time was best spent dialing in sail shapes and rig selection. Money, or the lack of it coming from the team, was also a factor. Most importantly, it just wasn’t done.
Stuart Streuli| |Coach Luther Carpenter (left) and Head Coach Kenneth Andreasen enjoy a laugh while watching team building exercises. | The U.S. Sailing Team was a collection of individual Olympic campaigns. Making the team meant receiving a few hundred bucks-occasionally more-and some sailing clothes, maybe health insurance and logistical assistance.
Now it’s much more than that. It means access to top-flight coaching, conditioning, medical, nutritional advice, and substantial financial support. It also means joining a community of like-minded athletes. And this latter one was on full display in Colorado Springs.
This transformation has been a long time coming. The groundwork was laid during Gary Bodie’s tenure as the head coach-from 1998 to 2008-a period of leadership continuity that allowed the team to grow. Dean Brenner, who took over US SAILING’s Olympic Sailing Committee in 2004, has pushed hard to raise the funds necessary to fund the team like an Olympic sport needs to be funded. Andreassen is now putting his stamp on the organization. He’s a different leader from the introspective, methodical Bodie. Andreassen is charismatic. He laughs a lot, and he’s constantly ribbing his charges-from star pupil Zach Railey down to the youngest members of the development team.
But Andreassen is dead serious about his goals. No. 1 is to produce the fittest sailing team on the planet. That meant four days of physical testing and fitness education built around a handful of team-building exercises. There were lectures on nutrition and psychology, weight-lifting instruction, logistical sessions, and numerous tests. There was little down time. Andreassen will use the results to monitor the fitness of his sailors, to see who is working hard on their own, and who is coasting. He also hopes to establish some baseline numbers for future teams, guidelines for which aspiring Olympic sailors can shoot.
Stuart Streuli| |**The Beep Test requires athletes to complete a series of short sprints in a decreasing amount of time. It’s not fun. **| In sailing, fitness doesn’t translate to results as directly as it does in sports like swimming or track and field. But, whether due to the innate competitiveness inherent in any top athlete, a general realization of the value of being super fit, or some other factor, the sailors all took the testing and drills seriously.
A similar level of intensity was applied to the team-building exercises. While there were a few chuckles when Andreassen outlined the synchronized swimming exercises, they were quickly replaced by the sounds of strategizing and organizing.
“What’s the prize for first place,” asked one sailor after his team had emerged victorious from the final tug-of-war.
Andreassen pantomimed a pat on the back and laughed. The rewards will come down the road: At Hyeres, Memdemblik, and Kiel, and hopefully in Weymonth in 2012. They won’t be distributed equally. Such is the nature of Olympic sailing. Many try, most fall short of their goals. But those that buy into the team concept will know they were part of something special, whether they sail in Weymouth or watch from afar.
Stuart Streuli| |**Anna Tunnicliffe, Peet Must, and fitness coach Chris Herrera (l to r) relax after a grueling fitness drill involving short swims mixed with push ups, crunches, and squats. **| “Zach and I had a great sit down when I started this quad,” says Finn sailor Bryan Boyd, who faces the unenviable task of unseating the reigning Olympic silver medalist if he is to compete in Weymouth in 2012. “He’s on the top in ’08 in August, but we’re all back in the mix now.
“In 2012, the level is going to have changed. He and I have an understanding. We’re going to go at each other, and only one of us is going to get out of this alive. But one of us is going to go [to the 2012 Olympics] and we’re going to have a shot at a gold medal. And the person who doesn’t get there is going to have the satisfaction of watching those games and saying, ‘Had I been there, I would’ve had a shot at a gold medal.’ I’ll feel ownership if [Andrew] Campbell goes in the Star, whoever in whatever class. Those are your teammates, now. That’s the cool part. I don’t think they used to be their teammates. They give Super Bowl rings to the trainers, the guys on the bench, everybody. That’s the attitude, when we go to the Games, everybody pushes everybody to get there. The medals only go around one neck, but everybody was [involved].”
In June, the author will travel to Germany to witness the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics in the more traditional setting of Kiel Week. A full report will follow in the magazine.