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No Margin For Error: U.S. Olympic Trials Preview

October 3, 2003

After three successful Olympic campaigns, two of which produced silver medals, 470 skipper Paul Foerster knows as well as anyone what it takes to win the U.S. Olympic Trials. This time around, however, he’s not sure if he’s got it. “We’re definitely not as prepared as last time,” says the 2000 470 silver medalist. “We’re pretty good in light and medium stuff, but it’s the heavy stuff we’ve been having problems with.” This campaign, with another weathered warrior of the Olympic-class circuit, Kevin Burnham, has been the ultimate veteran affair. They started sailing together regularly a little over a year before the Trials and have done their training and competing in short, focused bursts. The results have been impressive. A sixth at the 2002 470 Worlds, a fifth at Kiel Week last June, and then a victory at the light-air European Championships in Brest, France, last July. “The thing that I noticed most was we stopped concentrating on boathandling issues and started to really address the racecourse tactically and boatspeedwise,” says the 46-year-old Burnham of their win at the Europeans. “We minimized our mistakes and didn’t have so much discussion on what we were doing as where we were going.”

Foerster and Burnham’s performance in Europe is a large part of the reason they’ll be considered the favorites when the Trials start on Galveston Bay in November. Another is that their main competition–and the No. 1 pair on the 2003 U.S. Sailing Team–has recently split up.

Steven Hunt and Michael Miller started their campaign for 2004 shortly after finishing third in the 2000 Trials. A summer of tuning up Foerster and Bob Merrick for the Sydney Olympics elevated Hunt and Miller’s game substantially, and by the spring of 2001, they were producing top-15 international results. They remained a step ahead of the other top American teams until Foerster and Burnham showed up at the 2002 Worlds.

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| © Daniel Forster/Rolex Miami OCR|

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| Olympic veterans Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham (right) are a favorite to win the Men’s 470 berth in November.* * *|

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Hunt and Miller sailed their last regatta together at SPA in May, where they were saddled with one OCS and four DNFs and finished 57th. “Our personalities and our chemistry in the boat are not the best,” says Hunt. “We had reached a plateau, and our progress wasn’t as steep, and that was frustrating for both of us.” It wasn’t an easy decision for Hunt. He and Miller were teammates at the College of Charleston and friends long before embarking on an Olympic campaign. But looking forward, the former collegiate All American finds reason to be optimistic. Despite minimal time together, Hunt and new crew Eben Russell were 18th at the European Championships.

“In other people eyes, we’re probably underdogs, but the gap’s a lot closer than in 2000,” says Hunt. “I know Eben and I can beat Paul and Kevin and they can also beat us. It’s going to come down to who sails the best.”

There are a few other young teams–Mark Ivey and Ward Cromwell, Mikee Anderson-Mitterling and Graham Biehl, Stuart McNay and Arthur Kinsolving, and David Dabney and Brock Schmidt–that could add a little excitement to what should be a two-boat race. But the biggest wild card in this regatta may turn out to someone who never gets near the water. Foerster’s wife, Carrie, is due with their first child on the first day of the Trials. “I plan on flying back to Dallas whenever she gives me the call,” he says. “If it’s in the middle of the race, it’s in the middle of the race. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

YNGLING

Since 1984, there have been six new classes–excluding the two changes of windsurfing equipment–introduced to the Olympic Games. The United States has won medals in four of those debuts. After the recent European season turned in by Betsy Alison, Lee Icyda, and Suzy Leech, the chances look good it’ll be five of seven after the Athens Games. That trio, which campaigns under the Team Challenge US banner, won SPA Regatta and the Yngling Open World Championships while finishing in the top 10 in two other major European Regattas.

“Part of our plan was to sail as much as we could because we only started a year ago,” says Alison. “We really looked at everything as practice. I think that’s important in terms of the evolution of the program, as opposed to going into the regatta saying, ‘We’ve got to finish in the top 10.’ But in terms of the results, we’re thrilled.” As happy as she is, though, Alison is under no illusion that these results will give her a significant edge in the Trials. No fewer than four other American teams have been sailing well on the international circuit. Hannah Swett, Joan Touchette, and Melissa Purdy won the Pre-Trials last fall. Swett has also competed in two previous Olympic Trials in the Europe dinghy. Jody Swanson, who’s sailing with Cory Sertl and Elizabeth Kratzig, finished second and fifth in the 1996 and 1992 Women’s 470 Trials. Carol Cronin has been a top Snipe sailor for years, and with Nancy Haberland and Liz Filter crewing, she’ll be a contender as well. Rounding out the pack is a team of recent college sailors led by Sally Barkow. Despite limited experience sailing the boat, they were the top American team at last January’s Rolex Miami OCR.

“Different teams have stepped it up at different times,” says Alison. “I think it’s going to be a tight Trials. It’s going to be the best prepared, the calmest, the team that’s feeling the least pressure that’s going to rise to the top.”

Alison, of course, would love that to be her team. Though she’s been one of the country’s top female sailors for two decades, winning five Rolex International Women’s Keelboat Championships in the process, she’s never been a top contender for an Olympic berth. The introduction of the Yngling has changed all that, and she isn’t taking the opportunity for granted.

“I was really happy when they finally came in with the keelboat discipline,” she says. “I feel very at home, very comfortable. It just feels like the timing is right. I know I’m a little bit older than a lot of the girls sailing internationally, but I think that the experience I’ve had has certainly proven to be helpful.”

STAR

There will be bigger fleets in other classes, but none will be as deep as the pack that gathers for the Star Trials in March on Florida’s Biscayne Bay. Start with two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Reynolds, then move on to professional yachtsmen like John Kostecki and Paul Cayard and talented amateur sailors like Andy Lovell, Doug Schofield, and Howie Shiebler. This event has numerous teams capable of winning and no clear favorite. Nothing illustrates this point better than the fact that Reynolds, who’s won the last four Star Trials, and crew Magnus Liljedahl are currently third in the ISAF World Rankings but didn’t make the 2003 U.S. Sailing Team. “On paper, there are 10 guys who could win the regatta,” says Terry Hutchinson, a two-time college sailor of the year who is preparing for his first Star Trials. Like many top teams, Hutchinson’s campaign with Andrew Scott was on hiatus during the summer while he and Scott worked their regular jobs as professional sailors. In fact, only Reynolds and Liljedahl actively participated in the 2003 European circuit. Class stalwart John MacCausland, who’s competed in five Star Trials, was the most active sailor domestically.

All the contenders will be back in the Star in time for the Keane North Americans in San Francisco, Oct. 18 to 21, which will help set a semblance of a pecking order. But regardless of those results, a wide-open Trials, one where patience and consistency are the keys to victory and the outcome is in doubt until the final race, is quite possible. That was the situation in 1996, when Reynolds won by a point over Kostecki. “One thing you learn is to hang in there and hope some opportunities come,” says Reynolds, who won the 2000 Olympic gold in a similar fashion. “You’ve got to be conservative; don’t try to get it all back in one shot.”

While Hutchinson plans on treating the Trials like any other important regatta–“Every time we go sailing, we’re trying to win,” he says. “I don’t look at it as anything special”–Reynolds feels his experience will give him an edge, especially if it comes down to the final races. “When I go to the Trials and the Olympics, I feel like I have a little bit of confidence because I’ve done it so much and I’ve been successful,” he says. “I don’t feel like this is my one chance. I like being in that position.”

LASER

At the age of 30, Mark Mendelblatt is practically a senior citizen next to many other top contenders in the Laser class. Of the five sailors on the 2003 U.S. Sailing Team, three have yet to graduate from college. Mendelblatt, who was second in the 2000 Trials and third in 1996, didn’t make the team because he was busy last winter as a member of the OneWorld America’s Cup syndicate. But soon after OneWorld was eliminated from the Louis Vuitton Cup, he got the itch to return to the Laser. He spent the spring and the summer racing in Europe. A 12th at SPA proved his dinghy skills were still pretty sharp. “I’ve had my moments in this last year where I feel like I’m better than I ever was,” he says. “At other times, I feel like I’m really missing something against the top international guys.” In both of his previous Trials, his biggest mistake came early: a DSQ in 1996 and an OCS in 2000. He knows he’ll have to avoid that trap this time.

Top-ranked Andrew Campbell and Andrew Lewis may be young–19 and 21, respectively– but both have a lot of experience, and both sailed in the 2000 Trials. Campbell thinks that the weather will be more of a factor than in 2000, when John Myrdal, thanks largely to blazing upwind speed in breeze, averaged 2.7 points per finish en route to the win. “The 2000 Trials were sailed in almost the same breeze conditions the whole time. That allowed for each of the top two guys in that condition to put a foot forward,” says Campbell, who just completed his freshman year at Georgetown and won the world junior Laser championship in 2002. “A more conservative approach is going to be used this time. There’s going to be different people winning races. If you get fifth all regatta long, you’re going to have good chance of winning.”

TORNADO

Robbie Daniel‘s Olympic Trials career started off with bang. He won the first race of the 1996 Trials in Savannah, Ga. That was, however, the only race he’d win in the regatta. Nothing better than a fourth in the first 11 races of the 2000 Trials eliminated him and crew Enrique Rodriquez from contention. But they closed out that regatta with three straight firsts, and that’s where the 41-year-old Floridian hopes to pick up when the 2004 Tornado Trials start in the middle of February off Miami Beach. “In 2000, we felt we were in a really good position, and I think our mental state wasn’t there,” says Daniel, the 2002 North American champion. “We short circuited and freaked out. This time, I’m much more relaxed because I’ve got a longer track record of being competitive and winning regattas not only against the other Americans but against the world fleet. If we can concentrate on sailing a good regatta, then we can win it.” At press time, Daniel had yet to decide who “we” would be for the Trials. He’s been sailing with Eric Jacobsen and Anders Straume. Jacobsen has more experience, but the 19-year-old Straume has more time to train. Either way, Daniel will have a battle on his hands with two established teams. John Lovell and Charlie Ogletree won the past two Trials in the Tornado, both times in the last race, and are currently the top American team in the ISAF World Rankings. Lars Guck, who’s finished fourth, second, and second in the previous three Olympic Tornado Trials, will be tougher than ever in the reconfigured double-trapeze Tornado, now that he’s able to use his 6’1″, 185-pound frame to full advantage while steering from the wire. He’s sailing with Jonathan Farrar. The rest of the fleet won’t be able to match the consistency of the top three boats, but they could influence the outcome. “You never know who’s going to turn up,” says Daniel. “We always get people who are good cat sailors in the U.S. who want to give it a shot. They can have an effect; they can cause somebody to have a bad race.”

WOMEN’S 470

Fewer Olympic classes have had more turnover in the last few years than the Women’s 470. Of the five teams that made up the 2001 U.S. Sailing Team, only one was active this past year, Katie McDowell and Isabelle Kinsolving. They have been joined on the world circuit over the last two years by Erin Maxwell and Jen Morgan. Both teams are relatively inexperienced; the 28-year-old McDowell is the oldest of the four, while Morgan and Kinsolving graduated from college in 2002. But they are certainly not short on talent. Maxwell and McDowell are two of the most decorated female collegiate sailors in history. Each team has progressed at a startlingly similar rate. The two were separated by no more than two places and eight points at three major European regattas last spring. McDowell and Kinsolving were the top American team twice, while Maxwell and Morgan put together the best overall finish, a ninth at Kiel Week. This regatta could dissolve into a match race, but there are a few other teams worth mentioning. Two-time Olympian Courtenay Dey, who finished second in the 2000 470 Trials, and Linda Wennerstrom haven’t sailed internationally since Dey gave birth to her first son last November, but they will be a threat. Allison Jolly, the 1988 Olympic 470 gold medalist, will be sailing with Susie Reischmann. They are a bit of a longshot, as is former Europe wunderkind Amanda Clark, who sails with Sarah Mergenthaler.

49er

Tim Wadlow and Pete Spaulding‘s 49er campaign has been a full-time job for nearly two years. The results are beginning to show. They have moved up from third on the U.S. Sailing Team in 2001 and 2002 to first this year, and their international ranking has climbed from 55th to 15th in less than two years. While in Greece for the Pre-Olympic Regatta, they notched their first international victory, knocking off a small but talented fleet at the Saronikas Gulf Regatta. Wadlow and Spaulding’s rise has dropped Andy Mack and Adam Lowry, who finished third at the 2000 Trials, to second on the U.S. Team. “There’s no question they’re sailing the boat extremely well,” says Lowry. “They’re probably training more than anyone else.” Rather than spend last summer in Europe, Mack and Lowry branched out to other classes to sharpen their general racing skills. “We don’t feel like making a 49er go fast is our weakness,” says Lowry. “The things that we need to work on to win the Trials are things around the starting line, tactical situations, holding lanes. Things that are universal in sailing.” The Trials could easily come down to a clash of these two training methods, but Lowry hopes that it’s a more wide-open affair. “There are some teams that will be right in there,” he says. “Highest on that list I’d put Morgan Larson. There’s also Dalton Bergan and Zack Maxam, who are very fast and can win a race at any time.” Larson finished a close second in the last 49er Trials before signing with OneWorld. Bergan is the 2000 college sailor of the year.

FINN CLASS

Few classes rally around their Olympic Trials like American Finn sailors. In 2000, 26 traveled to San Francisco, most without a prayer of winning, and endured some chilly spring sailing. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least that many in Fort Lauderdale in February. But no matter how many show up, says Geoff Ewenson, who finished sixth in 2000, “It’s going to come down to one of as many as four people. Of those four, I don’t know who’s going to have his A game.” Ewenson and Mo Hart, once roommates at the University of Rhode Island, have been the top two on the U.S. Sailing Team for the past two years. Hart recently finished a credible 19th at the 2003 European Championships in Sweden. Bryan Boyd, Andrew Kern, and Darrell Peck have sailed in various international and national regattas over the past two years and will likely factor in the standings. Then there’s Kevin Hall, an America’s Cup veteran who finished eighth in the Finn Trials in 1992, fifth in the Laser Trials in 1996, and second in the 49er Trials in 2000. “You’d be crazy not to think that Kevin Hall’s going to be a player,” says Ewenson. Hall has sailed both the Star and the Finn during the last two years and was the top American at the Finn North Americans, finishing 10 points in front of Ewenson.

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