The Yngling fleet heading downwind at the Rolex Miami OCR 2008.
The Olympic Games. These three words carry more weight than those of any other sporting competition. Anytime an athlete represents his or her country, he or she represents the pinnacle of performance and sportsmanship. This summer 18 American sailors will be racing in the biggest regatta of their lives. For 14 U.S. Sailing Team members, the Beijing Games will be a first-time experience. The team’s four veterans will be available to help their younger teammates acclimate to the overwhelming fanfare and the pressure of the regatta itself:
racing in the Olympics is a far different experience than any other sailing competition.
That the upcoming Games take place in China, and with the charged political atmosphere over the past year, there will be a higher level of complexity added to the challenge. Olympic Sailing Committee Chairman Dean Brenner and his staff have been preparing for this regatta for the past four years, but once it gets underway, the most important philosophy to instill in the American squad is to focus on the sailing. This is hard to do when you’re attending grandiose opening ceremonies, and are surrounded by Olympic fever. Historically, American sailors have performed well at the Games, and the lessons from previous athletes will be an asset to all the young and highly groomed sailors racing in China, regardless of the country they represent.
The U.S. team, this time around, has a much different composition. In 2004, in Athens, the average age of the U.S. team was 35. In 2008, with the exception of Star class skipper John Dane, 58, the American team averages only 28 years of age. However, every sailor is comfortable with international competition, having been on the racing circuit for many years as they campaigned for their respective berths. Several of these sailors are likely to qualify for future Olympic competitions, making these China Games an important training platform for London in 2012 and beyond. As an example, Paul Foerster competed in four Olympics before earning his gold medal in Athens. Tornado sailors John Lovell and Charlie Ogletree will be competing in their fourth Games this year, and they’re hoping to improve on their silver medal performance in Athens. “Charlie and I have really focused on peaking at the Games,” says Lovell. “We have worked hard on physical training and losing weight because of the light winds expected in China.”
And what of those predicted light winds? There’s an old expression often heard at big sailing events: “The wind is not normally like this here.” And Olympic history has proven this to be especially true. In 1972, in Kiel, Germany, the wind was anticipated to be strong, but it was light all week. Buddy Melges had dominated the U.S. trials in windy San Francisco Bay, but had to quickly shift gears for light air. The experience he gleaned from years competing on Midwestern lakes served him well, however, as he dominated the Games and won a gold medal. In Pusan, South Korea, across the Yellow Sea from Qingdao (the sailing venue for China), the wind was also forecast to be light, but for several days during the Games a monster blow overwhelmed many of the sailors. Therefore, being prepared for every possible wind condition will be an important attribute. Most sailors, including Lovell and Ogletree, have lost weight in anticipation of the light winds, yet strong winds could become a factor. Yngling skipper Sally Barkow says she expects it to blow over 20 knots at least one out of every five days, so she’s prepared for it.
One important factor that will be evident from the first gun is the extremely tough competition in all 11 classes. Every sailor will have his or her hands full in their quest for a medal. In Athens, 21 countries won at least one of the 33 medals awarded. And, in fact, several perennially strong sailing nations-including New Zealand, Australia, Russia, The Netherlands, and Germany-went home from Athens empty handed. You can be sure these teams will be hungry to collect in China.
Another interesting fact from Athens was that 76 individual boats won at least one of the 126 races held. In most classes, averaging a eighth was good enough for a medal, so with the capricious winds and currents expected to test every sailor’s attitude throughout the Games, maintaining a low average will be key. Patience will be paramount. Finn representative, Zach Railey, 24, puts this in perspective when he says: “If I’m stuck in 20th on the wrong side of the course, I’m going to say ‘I’m OK,’ and work to get 19th, then go for 18th, and just pick them off one boat at a time.”
In studying past Olympics, I find one trend: individual rivalries are bad. Any time one competitor persistently locks horns with another, they both ultimately lose out. One helpful way for competitors to approach this situation is to only look at other boats by their country letters, and disregard the personalities. This is not easy to do, but is effective.
In many ways, Olympic competition matches the style of racing found at the collegiate level. To win at college nationals, for example, a fifth-place average will do the job, and boats are remarkably close at every turning mark. Keeping cool under pressure and finding clear sailing lanes will pay handsomely for the sailors-this is the sort of stuff you learn in college sailing, and it should help the U.S. Olympic effort, considering that John Dane, Sally Barkow, Debbie Capozzi, Carrie Howe, Stu McNay, Andrew Campbell, Amanda Clark, John Lovell, Charlie Ogletree, Anna Tunnicliffe, and Tim Wadlow were all College All-Americans.
Classes are scheduled to race on different days, building up to a 10-boat final medal race. The goal of this new competition format is to weight the end of the regatta. In the past, with discards allowed, sailors could win medals without having to sail the last race. In an effort to draw media interest at the end of the regatta, however, the medal race counts double points (for an explanation of the medal race, see p. 58). There will be the potential for dramatic changes in the standings right up to the final race. We will soon see if this new formula creates more interest.
Most Olympic boats are fairly standardized these days, so it’s difficult to gain a significant speed advantage. These regattas are won on technique, physical training, and most importantly attitude. This is where good coaching can make a difference, and in this regard, the U.S. team is in good hands with its coaching staff, led by Gary Bodie. Veteran coaches, including Luther Carpenter, Skip Whyte, and James Lyne support Bodie, and a new addition to the support staff is rules guru Dave Perry.
For the first time, the Olympic broadcast world feed will be available in the United States. Rights holder, NBC, plans to put the feed on its website www.NBColympics.com. I have been asked to commentate throughout the feed, which will be a combination of voice and text. These feeds will be downloadable at any time of the day. The basic plan put forth by the host broadcaster is to feature one or two classes each racing day. The up-to-date racing schedule can be found on the NBC website as well.
In the Athens and Sydney Olympics, the sailing competition took place close to the main venue, but Qingdao is more than 300 miles away from Beijing. The city of Qingdao itself has a population of seven million people, and its name roughly translates to “green island.” It is the home of China’s legendary brewer, Tsingdao, which has been brewing beer since 1903. The resort city features a long, white, crescent-shaped beach that fills with thousands of beachgoers during the hot summer months. With all the action happening just off the shore, bathers will get a clear look at sailing’s most intense, and most historical competition.