Hall of Fame Interview: Jochen Christian Schuemann

SW's Editor had a long transatlantic conversation with Alinghi's sailing team manager in May, 2003

Philippe Schiller/team Alinghi

SW: Had you heard of the Sailing World Hall of Fame before?Jochen Schuemann: I’d heard a little bit about it, and it’s a big honor to be selected. I was a little surprised as well that you looked so far over to Europe for your Hall of Fame, but I appreciate it.SW: Where were you born?JS: I was born in Berlin and lived there until Wall came down, and a little later I moved toward Denmark; I worked for two years for Elvstrom Sails there. For another chance to work in Germany, early in ’93, I moved to Penzberg in Bavaria, a small town where the last German North Sails loft is located. It was Eckart Wagner of North who pulled me down to southern Germany.SW: How far is the drive to Geneva?JS: About 6 hours, but when everything was settled in 2000, I quickly moved there. My first meeting with Alinghi was there in late October after Sydney Games, and in the beginning of December I moved. I was living and working in Geneva from then on.SW: Of all the championships and medals you’ve won, and now the America’s Cup, what do you view as your best achievement?JS: I’m always looking forward. The most current win is the best win, but the day you won , you’re looking forward to the next challenge. There have been some very tough wins and some clear wins. But every single success is very important. Sometimes even some losses have been thrilling, like the silver medal in Sydney--nobody’s speaking about it, but that was a tough fight. I had started an Olympic campaign after stopping my Olympic career, and I restarted with two young sailors completely from the bottom again. Within four years, we obviously missed a great chance to make another gold, but we were in very good shape and had all the potential to win there. That was one of the great moments, even losing.SW: You don’t view that as any kind of failure?JS: Yes, but there’s a lot to learn from these things. That’s probably another principle, that you always try to look for the good sides of a failure or a bad event. You try to be optimistic and learn the lessons from whatever you did, and often there’s more to learn from what’s not the perfect result. If you’re looking back to the gold medal or a complete win, you might say, “Oh, you’d better not change too much.”SW: Is there any one loss that you’ve had where you learned the best lesson?JS: Barcelona in ’92 was one of the big losses because we were much better [than we performed]. We nearly won the round robin, and we had the potential to make a medal for sure, maybe even a gold medal, but we made a lot of mistakes and were not good enough in light air. So after that we improved our ability to sail in light air a lot and improved our match racing skills a lot. It was a missed chance. Especially when you feel that you’ve been quite well prepared. ¿but you feel disappointed realizing it a little too late because you know you have all the tools.SW: What let you down more, your boatspeed or your match-racing skills?JS: Probably my own nerves because even with all that we had at that time, we made it very far, and we nearly won the round robin, which would have changed the whole event for us because we would have been able to choose our opponent. A lot of people actually guessed that I had given a win away to Jesper Bank, who later won the gold medal, because he was and still is a good friend of mine and I was working with him at Elvstrom Sails in Denmark. He was the one who had pulled me there after I had a little difficult time in East Germany. So people thought I wanted to lift him into the semifinals, which was wrong. I never would do that, not even with a friend. It was wrong in fact because [if I’d beaten him] he would have been even on points with Magnus Holmberg, and due to the heat racing results would have come into the semis anyway. But people were guessing that because I was leading the match against Jesper so clearly and then I lost it due to the very funny wind conditions in front of the wall--we were sailing in front of a big concrete wall which was kind of an arena [on the waterfront. If I’d stayed] in the leading position of the round robin, I could’ve chosen my opponent and I for sure would not have chosen Jesper. Kevin Mahaney knew I was struggling against Jesper, and Jesper was much faster in light air especially, so he sent us against each other and I lost that one. I lost my focus and had a very, very bad race for third place against the British team, Lawrie Smith. I even collided with him and got penalties, and everything went wrong from that moment on. Somehow I lost track there of my own skills and the focus we had so far. That was probably even more disappointing--having no medal at all--and just before I had all the chances to make a very good medal.SW: You said it was your nerves that were at fault. Is that something you’ve had to struggle with before?JS: No. That’s actually one of my strengths. What it comes down to in the very big events, usually you have a competition that’s very even in preparation and on the technical level. What counts is how you behave and how you can perform during the few days of an Olympic competition or an America’s Cup finals. I think so far I have done very well, especially in these big events, because I could keep my act together for the decisive hours or days. [In Barcelona] there was a lot of pressure; it was just after the reunification of Germany. It was the first German team I sailed for, so a lot of other things went on [such as] not living with my family for a while because I was in Denmark for two years. So there was a lot of pressure, but I wouldn’t blame any of that for my failure. I think it came down to myself--that I didn’t do well enough at the moment where it counts.SW: Do you find that you often second guess yourself and you have to reinforce your resolve to stay focused?JS: That was unusual. I think I proved through all my Olympic career that I usually did quite well. I think there’s a little natural talent, but I think the way I learned to focus things--to do one thing but do it correctly and perfect. Not spreading my energy and my focus on two or three different things. I learned that from my father and my mother, but also later from my coaches.SW: What was it like where you learned to sail and how you came to be involved in Olympic sailing in East Germany?JS: I started sailing in school. As a young kid I tried all kinds of sports from gymnastics to soccer and swimming and skiing. I even did some playing in a marching band. In fifth class at school there was an opportunity to join a leisure course which was only from that class on, which was called Boatbuilding and Sailing. I always was keen to work with boats and build stuff that was able to sail or float. I thought it was a good opportunity to join that course and I enjoyed it very very much.SW: How old were you?JS: I was 11 years old. The main reason I enjoyed it was the craftsmanship side, the technical side. In the beginning we did very simple jobs like cutting wood, sanding it, and painting it. But we were helping to build Optimists during these little sessions. The next spring we had to sail the Optimists. That was the beginning of my sailing career. It didn’t start too well; I remember well my first race it was very windy, and I returned to the harbor because I was afraid of sinking. There was so much breeze and so many waves that the Optimist got filled and I was not smart enough to bail it out quick enough. So I retired from--or didn’t even show up at the starting line for--my first race. But during the weekend I did well enough to proceed to the next level. I even sailed in the East German championship in my first sailing year.SW: Did you continue sailing Optimists?JS: I sailed Optimists for three years,but I was a little bit too big so I started sailing as a crew for a year on a 420, and then an OK Dinghy. That was a quite good lesson before starting to sail the Finn. I had mainly a singlehanded career, but sailed a little in the 420, a 470, and Flying Dutchman. SW: How many years did you sail the Finn?JS: I started Finn sailing in ’71 and finished in ’84, mainly due to the biggest disappointment in all my sailing career, not being allowed to go for the Los Angeles Games because of the boycott of the Eastern Bloc countries. I was quite well prepared, and had good results in ’83 in the Pre-Olympics in Long Beach with a rented boat and rented rig, which is difficult in a Finn. I finished third there and was the European champion in ’83. I was really keen to go there but I couldn’t. So that was nearly the end of my Olympic career because I was so angry. I didn’t want to understand why it happened.SW: For all those years were you sailing the Finn full time? Were you working on the side?JS: At first I was mainly finishing school, which I did in ’74. I was in one of these sports school where you stretch the school time over the whole year, but you get a lot of time early in the day to practice in a training group with other Finn sailors. I was training with Bernd Dehmel, a former top Finn sailor was my coach at this time. In ’71 I was his sparring partner actually. He was the spare Finn guy in ’72 Olympics. Over my whole Finn career he was my coach and even later, after a little break where he did some junior coaching, he came back to be my Soling coach. SW: Did you quit sailing for a while after ’84?JS: I wanted to quit in ’84 but two friends in my yacht club asked me to not throw in the towel but to change the class, and maybe instead of sailing a singlehanded boat, working hard and moving slowly on the water, to join a team boat and sail the Soling. These two guys gave me new motivation and we started a new campaign together. That became my most successful time overall. It was tough because there was good competition already in East Germany so it was not easy to make in the first year, within the first month actually. We had to start in the fall and qualify for the national team, because otherwise we wouldn’t be allowed to sail in international events. There was a lot of pressure and obviously a lot of competition because the other Soling sailors were aware that a new team was coming up, and they tried to fight us.SW: Somebody was going to lose their spot.JS: Exactly. So you know how the Olympic Trials are usually the hardest competition you have to pass before you’re able to do the big win; that was hard, but it accelerated our campaign from the beginning, and we did very well in ’85 and became silver medal winners in the Europeans. Every year from then on we made at least one medal, sometimes two, in the Europeans or the worlds. So that was a successful time, and we won Olympic gold twice and missed once in Barcelona when we got fourth.SW: As a team did you break up in ’96?JS: First, it was very difficult to go on after the reunification of Germany in ’89 because each of us was married with two kids. It was a very difficult situation. All our surroundings changed completely, and there was no sailing federation support which had been there before in East Germany. That got completely cut and got partly rebuilt by the western German system, but mainly it was a matter of having a job and making money and finding enough guaranteed living conditions for our families. That’s why I moved to Denmark without my family to make enough money and have enough time for sailing. There were similar problems for my crews. One was working with a special support system with Mercedes Benz and he’s still there working full time.SW: Were you able to sail as much?JS: We did what we had to do but everything around us was changing. Everything was changing in Germany. So it was a weird time. You had to find your new orientation and new base where you could build an Olympic campaign. An Olympic campaign is kind of a luxury thing. Your normal life, to organize that, is much more important than to have the luxury to sail a lot, and spend extra time, extra money.SW: Did you think at that time that you might have to drop it altogether? JS: Not at all. We had kind of a strong will to say, “For sure, now we have to make it. We want to prove that we’re not giving up and that we will overcome the hurdle, the extra difficulty to prove that we are a good team and that we’ll be able to win the trials.” A lot of people were saying, “Oh, now they’ve lost their good sport system and the support and everything, so they will drop and we will not see them anymore.” We wanted to prove that we can focus and we could find our own way to proceed and be good, and we did.SW: Not only did you make it to the Olympics in ’92, but you did it again in ’96. JS: When I moved to Bavaria that was the beginning for me to be involved a little bit with the America’s Cup story. Eckart Wagner was building a junior project with Daimler Benz towards developing a German America’s Cup challenge. In Barcelona he met me and asked if I would be keen to join that group, which was called AeroSail. Because my profession is as a physical education teacher, he asked me to be the sports team manager to build that concept and train and work with these people. So I left Elvstrom Sails and went back to Germany from Denmark. That went kind of parallel with my Olympic ambitions. Unfortunately, four years later, the concept got stopped for various reasons, but the concept was good and very successful and built up a lot of young sailors. After our ‘96 win in Atlanta, Marc Pajot contacted me; he knew about my ambitions for getting close to the America’s Cup, but it wasn’t that easy for a German without a German challenge. He invited me to join a Swiss project, the Fast 2000 project, which was obviously a little bit differently structured compared to Alinghi. That became one of the toughest experiences in sailing I ever had because it was not very well managed. Part of that was that we had no time, no budget, and no chances to train and practice. I decided after giving up the Olympic career in ’96, that I had to start Olympic sailing again just to train my own talent at least. After having a break of a little more than half a year, I restarted an Olympic campaign, which was a little bit stupid because as an Olympic champion I lost a lot of opportunities to get sponsorship and use the momentum of the win. And as for my guys, we’d had a good time together and we were quite old, and everyone was keen to go into normal life, so we’d shaken hands and said, “That’s it.” So I had to find new guys to start with. That was the 2000 campaign for Sydney, mainly a campaign just to have good practice and train myself to be ready to sail with the first Swiss America’s Cup team. I was jumping back and forth from the Soling to the big boat to do a little bit of match racing, to doing a little bit of office work, near Geneva. I was working with sponsors, building boats, and doing all that was necessary for a Cup campaign.SW: That kind of violated what you’d learned when you were young about doing one thing and doing it really well, didn’t it?JS: Exactly, but it was my ambition to get close to the America’s Cup, and having no challenge in my own country, I had to do something to at least get there and understand what was going on instead of reading books or magazines. You have to be there.SW: When you finished that challenge did you have a clear sense of how the next one you’d be involved in would be different?JS: Actually I was fed up and I didn’t want to do another one. But the good thing was that during that campaign I met Ernesto Bertarelli. He helped us during some difficult moments, and I got to know him as a person and that he was keen on the America’s Cup as well. I made a long to-do list for Michel Bonnefous, one of Alinghi’s current directors, because the two of them planned to go to Auckland for the finals. I was back home in Europe because we broke the rig before Christmas and that was the end of our campaign. So I made them a list of materials and people to meet, and I think that helped a little bit to build up further Ernesto’s enthusiasm and interest in the America’s Cup.SW: When he came back did he call you?JS: No. It took a long time. I think there was still contact, but we never discussed clearly about that. But Russell called me and was keen to work with me at the new project. I wasn’t that keen to do another campaign but I knew Russell from Finn sailing already, and then we had sailed Solings. I told him, “No, this time I will finish the Sydney campaign first before I talk about the America’s Cup.” I wanted to finish my campaign well, and this was just a couple months before the Games. I said, “Let me finish that and then we can talk. I’m not that keen, but because you’re asking me, I will think about it, after Sydney.” But he was not giving up and we met in Sydney because he came there as coach and sparring partner for Jeff Madrigali, the U.S. entry for the Solings. Without a lot of dust or whatever, I don’t know how to explain it really, we found a quiet moment to meet and have a long, good chat, and before the event actually started, we shook hands and said, “OK, we’ll do it together.” That was my commitment to go with Alinghi, and basically, after finishing Sydney, I think I spent only one or two days in Germany and then I went to Switzerland and joined the first big brainstorming meetings in Geneva.SW: What was the biggest reason for your Alinghi success that you’ve taken away from the campaign?JS: For a short answer, obviously it’s the people, the team, and there’s no doubt that the leader of the team, Ernesto Bertarelli, had a big, big influence because he was such a perfect example of being a team player. He set a lot of standards with his thinking and his enthusiasm, and it was simple for me as sailing team manager; I never had a big argument with my crews because I only had to point out Ernesto and say, “Hey, any questions?” I think the leadership of Ernesto and also Russell was part of that--working with a group of people with a lot competences from the 15 nations we were coming from, still giving everyone a lot of freedom to find their way and their place to work in Alinghi. That’s what made all of us and finally Alinghi, successful. Having very good preparation with design and sailing, and all of the other areas. I think we have been a really good example. It’s much more than when you usually use the phrase teamwork--it was really teamwork.SW: What’s your job for the defense?JS: I will join the team in the same function, being the sailing team manager, and also trying to be one of the sailors in the afterguard, but that will be an open, in-house competition to find out who will be the best team. So nobody is signed--and didn’t sign last time--to [be guaranteed] his seat on the race boat. That’s not the way we think and we do it. It’s important to build again and maintain the spirit we have right now, which probably won’t be easy, because when you come from the winning situation, in some ways you don’t want to change the winning team--you know the famous slogan--but at the same time you know you have to do even better to win again. To find new momentum, because the old momentum will run out, you have to find new incentives and ways to motivate everyone again on an even higher level. What we did--it’s no secret--the day after we arrived in Geneva, we started talking to our team and we re-signed them, so we have a big bunch of Alinghi team members staying with us again. They’re obviously proud staying with us, which is good for us. But we wanted to secure them because every single member was part of and made that team what it was. We want to go on with them.SW: Do you ever go sailing for pleasure?JS: I’m missing a good cruising tour sometime. That’s all on the agenda for the future [someday]. Now, whenever there’s time, I’m happy to go to local sailing at clubs here in Bavaria. I’m also still a member at my little club in East Berlin, and I go there when I have the time.