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Medal Matters Most for Mendelblatt

While an America's Cup job would be nice, winning an Olympic medal in the Star class remains Mark Mendelblatts top priority.

October 6, 2010

Professional sailors around the world are anxiously watching as the contenders distinguish themselves from the pretenders in the race for the 34th America’s Cup. No matter their opinions on the competition, the choice of boats, and the absurd politics of this event, working for a Cup team remains the steadiest—and often most lucrative—paycheck in the sport of sailing.

Mark Mendelblatt, a two-time Cup veteran with OneWorld and Emirates Team New Zealand, is one of those hoping for a contract. However, it’s not at the top of his to-do list. Mendelblatt, a former Opti, high school, and college star—not to mention a 2004 Olympian in the Laser—says an Olympic medal in the Star class is his No. 1 goal in sailing. Cup sailing is, in effect, the day job that funds his true passion.

Ian Roman/TeamOrigin| |Mark Mendelblatt sailed with TeamOrigin and BMW Oracle Racing this past year.|

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Getting an Olympic medal will require winning the U.S. berth (historically speaking, the most difficult Olympic berth to win, given the Star’s strength and depth in the United States) and then beating a who’s who of sailing superstars (Grael, Scheidt, Percy, Lööf, etc.) for the hardware in London. And since he can’t sail the Star by himself, he’ll also need to settle on a crew.

We interviewed Mendelblatt in late August for the October issue. He’d just finished 11th at the Skandia Sail For Gold, held at the 2012 Olympic venue in Weymouth, and—like everyone else at that time—had yet to hear exactly what BMW Oracle Racing planned to do with the America’s Cup and how teams like TeamOrigin would react.

How was the weather at Sail For Gold? What we can expect for the Olympics?
It’s going to be cold and rainy, on a warm day. Try to stay somewhere where they have a dryer. That’s my goal for next year.

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You’ve been around the U.S. Sailing Team for going on 15 years. The Trials for the 2012 Olympics will be your fifth. How has the team changed over that time period?
It’s changed in a lot of ways. The leadership has changed. Some of the guys have been around for a long time, but with Kenneth [Andreasen, head coach] and Dean [Brenner, chairman US SAILING Olympic Sailing Committee] taking over it’s become a lot more commercialized and professional, if you will. It was always well run. I think the biggest difference now is that we have a lot more support financially and from a coaching perspective, too

This may be a dumb question, but those are all good things, right?
It is positive. There were also a lot of positives from back in the earlier days when I was on the team. It was a smaller feel, but you kind of knew everyone and there were less people involved. But the changes that have gone on are definitely positive. I don’t want to criticize what went on before, but I think that the amount of effort that’s going into it and what Kenneth and Dean have done has been very good. In terms of fund raising, it’s been very, very good.

**Is there any way you can quantify the difference in funding, and what you personally have to fund raise, from 10 years ago? How much has the U.S. Sailing Team’s contribution to your efforts increased over the past decade? **
It’s hard to say in dollar amount. The thing I like the best about it now is its results dependent. Getting money or not getting money all has to do entirely with your results. And that’s the way it should be. I can see an advantage to giving some funding to developmental sailors to give them the means to set them out on the path. Once you get to the level where you’re competing for a medal, if you’re serious about it, you should be willing to let you funding be based on results. That’s what I’ve enjoyed the most, this is what I’ve been the most happy with, is it’s results dependent funding. And they’ve come up with the money to do this.

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If you’re good—as you are—if you’re at the top of your class, how much of your budget can you get from the U.S. Sailing Team AlphaGraphics?
For something like a Laser, you could probably fund it entirely on what you get if you’re in the top level or two of funding. With the Star, my goal is to use what they’re paying me to pay approximately half of my campaign. It’s not enough to pay the whole thing.

Does that reduce the amount of fund-raising you have to do? Is it an easier job now, can you focus more on your sailing?
Me, personally, I’ve not spent that much time in fund raising. I’ve taken the approach more of work hard and use the money I making from work to pay for my campaign costs. The other thing that does, which is a negative, is it takes up a lot of time so I don’t have as much time to sail the Star. On the other hand the less time I sail the Star, the less expensive it is. It’s not what Dean and Kenneth want to hear, but it’s a reality. Because of the way they’ve changed the program, it’s allowed me to take on less professional sailing and concentrate more on the Star and just take sort of the bigger professional sailing jobs.

onEdition| |**Mark Mendelblatt and Jon Von Schwarz sailed to an 11th in the Star class at the 2010 Skandia Sail For Gold. The duo also finished fifth at the 132-boat Star Europeans in May. **|

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Were money not an issue; is Star the sailing you enjoy the most?
Yes. By far.

What it is about the Star that you enjoy so much?
The Star class is unique and different from the other Olympic class in that you have the biggest names in the sport in our class. If you look at guys like Torben Grael, Robert Scheidt, Iain Percy, these guys are big names in our sport and they sail the Star. That’s what our class has that the other classes don’t have. Guys who consistently as their names get bigger and they do more projects whether it’s round the world racing or America’s Cup racing, they continue to race the Star. It really is the only Olympic class that guys like that can sail. It’s a keelboat. It’s something you can come back to after doing other things and still be very competitive. That’s why I like it, because of the challenge of getting to race against the best guys in the world.

One of the big pushes of the U.S. Sailing Team is intra-squad training, where all the U.S. sailors in a certain discipline train together under a common coach, which can be counter-intuitive considering these same sailors are rivals for the Olympic berth. What’s your thought on that arrangement?
I’ve been in favor of it. What they’re talking about doing for the Sail For Gold next year is giving two coaches to the Start class so each coach would be working with two boats. I think that’s fine. A lot of people like to have their own private coach. But the Star is a boat that you don’t need constant babysitting. It’s nice to have a tow in and out, and it’s nice to have a coach going around taking current readings and wind readings for you, but you don’t need to be always holding on to the coach boat. It’s a more self-reliant class and it’s a bigger boat so it gives you a little bit more comfort when you’re waiting between races. I’m happy with that. I know some people like to have their own private coach all the time. But I’m happy with the way they’re trying to do it and I’ve made it clear that I’m in favor of it.

What about the concept of teams training together? Can you get to the top with a private coach and picking up training partners here and there? Or is a group concept the most likely route to the gold medal?
I don’t really know the answer to that. It always seems like our training is centered around the regattas. We have a training camp before regatta. There are always a lot of guys around training with each other. Not a whole lot of closed sessions that you see, or guys breaking off and doing their own thing. It’s just a logistical thing. We’re at these regattas. We’re all in the same place, what’s the point in not training with each other.
We’re not dominating these regattas, either as a team. The Americans are up there all the time, but the reality is we are not favorites for a medal right now. We sort of realize, as the group, to hide from each other and run away from each other is pointless. We need to improve our levels. Yeah, one of us is going to win the Trials, but right now none of us are good enough to win a medal. We’ll all operating under than mentality.

Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle Racing| |**Mark Mendelblatt goes aloft for a better look during the 2010 Louis Vuitton Trophy La Maddalena **|

Let me shift gears a little bit. A few years ago you did a bit of match racing as a skipper, particularly in the St. Moritz regatta in Switzerland, which you won a few times. But nothing of late. Was that a phase that’s passed by?
I’ve never been a match-race skipper. I’ve done a bit of it and I did that regatta five times because it was something fun to do and I had some success there so they kept inviting me back. From a financial standpoint and the direction my career in sailing is taking, it doesn’t make sense for me to be a match-racing skipper. I’ve been a crew on America’s Cup teams and that’s kind of where my job is focused. And then other than that I want to spend my time racing the Star?

You mention the America’s Cup. Is that still the ultimate career goal at this stage, hooking up with an America’s Cup syndicate?
I waiting to see, like everyone else, what the next Cup is going to be, where it’s going to be, what boats it’s going to be in. But yeah, it’s hard to say you set that as a goal, getting a job because it pretty much comes down to who you know and timing and that sort of thing. I’d like to be offered a nice America’s Cup contract; it would be great. And I would consider that. But my goal is in sailing is getting an Olympic medal. I can’t say that getting an America’s Cup job is my goal, but it would be nice.

What other projects do you have on tap for the rest of the year?
Sailing schedule is pretty much focused on the Star, training and racing in the Star. Doing a little bit of the last Louis Vuitton regatta with TeamOrigin and other than that I don’t really have a lot going on.

So TeamOrigin the 1851 event in England and BMW Oracle Racing back in May in La Maddalena. How are the teams different? What about your job?
I’ve done the same job on the Version 5 America’s Cup boats. I’ve always had the traveler job and up the rig. I’ve never done anything else on these boats. For me it’s kind of the same regardless of what team I sail on. But I have a feeling it will change a lot, especially if Oracle decides to go with catamarans, which is all the talk now. Things are going to change and I’m sure the teams are going to re-evaluated what sort of personnel they want in each position?

Were there some significant differences between the two teams, how they sail?
There’s a big-time difference in the feel on both teams. Oracle was a group of very confident guys who were coming off a win and very happy about what they had achieved. Origin was a group of guys who were hungry to get there. There’s a big difference in the feel from both teams. Both very good and confident and professional how they went about things, but a very different culture.

You battled against Ben Ainsle quite a bit in the Laser. What’s it like to sail with him?
Ben and I have sailed together quite a bit. We were on OneWorld Challenge together and also Team New Zealand together. So we’ve sailed together lot. Ben is a very aggressive, determined sailor. He’s not happy unless he wins, and that’s what I like. Sometimes he can get almost a little too fired up, but I think that’s the reason why he’s as good as he is. It’s very good to sail with a guy like that because you know there’s nobody on the boat that wants to win more than him, and it brings everybody else’s level up at the same time.

Seemingly on the opposite end of the spectrum is Robert Scheidt, whom you’re now battling in the Star. He’s a very mellow individual. What makes him so good?
There are actually a lot of similarities between the two. I don’t think he’s laid back at all when it comes to racing. Off the water, probably you get that impression. But on the water he’s every bit as focused as determined as anyone out there. You race against him or with him—which I’ve done both—and you see that. On the water, he’s very focused, very determined. And doesn’t give up anything. Doesn’t ever lose focus or concentration on what he’s doing. For sure, off the water, he’s laid back. But it’s not like that on the water.

So who is the Brazilian Star representative in 2016? Scheidt or Torben Grael?
That’s a good question. I think that Robert has the advantage when it’s breezier and Torben could probably challenge him in lighter air.

You’ve sailed with a couple of crews this year. Magnus Liljedahl in at Kiel Week, Jon von Schwarz at the Europeans and Sail For Gold. What’s your crew situation right now?
I’d rather not comment on that right.

You did the 2007 Trials with Magnus, finishing third. He’s well into his 50s, but doesn’t seem to lose any enthusiasm or ability as he ages.
Magnus is a great crew and sailing with him in Kiel was a lot of fun. It always feels good sailing with Magnus. We struggled a little bit in the breeze just because we didn’t have time to practice. But when it got light, we felt pretty good.

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