One or Done: 2007 U.S. Olympic Sailing Trials Preview

Few regattas are more grueling, mentally and physically, than the U.S. Olympic Trials. Sixteen, or more, races over nine days; only first place matters. By the third week in October, 15 sailors will have realized a dream; for everyone else there will be only disappointment.


Stuart Streuli

If the Pre-Olympic regattas in Qingdao are any indication, the U.S. representative in the Laser Radial class may have a harder time winning the Olympic Trials than claiming the gold medal in the discipline in August of 2008. In both the 2006 and 2007 editions of these training regattas, an American sailor so dominated the field she was able to skip the medal race, which counts for double points and is not discardable, and still claim the gold medal. In 2006, it was Paige Railey. In 2007, Anna Tunnicliffe did the honors.But there's only room for one of them in Qingdao in 2008.Railey has seemed destined for the Olympics since the age of 14, when she moved from the Optimist to the Radial and immediately dominated the domestic circuit. Just as the Florida native was facing the difficult conversion to the technical Europe dinghy, then the women's singlehanded Olympic class, the International Sailing Federation dumped the Europe in favor of the Radial. Railey responded by winning the class's world championship in 2005 and vaulting herself to the top of the ISAF international rankings.As dominant as Railey was, Tunnicliffe was never far behind. At the Pre-Trials last year, they took first and second in seven of 10 races. Tunnicliffe won the regatta by 3 points.Neither has had, by their lofty standards, a stellar 2007. In two spring European events, Tunnicliffe missed the top 10, while Railey was 17th at the Worlds in Cascais. But both appear to be hitting stride at the right time. Railey won gold at the Pan Am Games in Brazil. Tunncliffe dominated the 2007 Pre-Olympic Regatta in Qingdao."I feel like I've got my momentum back again," says Tunnicliffe. "Paige, she had a rough Worlds, but she had some very good races. I haven't sailed against her that much this year, so I can't really say where she's at. I'm going in assuming she's carrying full momentum. I'm assuming she's going to do the same for me and we'll just go at it at the event."However, adds Tunnicliffe, that doesn't mean the Radial trials will be a match race from the first gun. "I'm going to start the regatta as a normal regatta and sail and evaluate it every day." While it would be an extreme surprise to see anyone other than Tunnicliffe or Railey win the berth, there are younger sailors in the field that can't be discounted. Sarah Lihan will be a factor in heavier air. October in Rhode Island-the regatta will be held at the mouth of the Sakonnet River-usually means breezy conditions. In the lighter winds, smaller sailors, such as Anne Haeger or Emily Billings, could upset the pecking order, even if just for a race or two.Playing Catch-UpWith a second at the 2003 U.S. Men's 470 Trials, Mikee Anderson-Mitterling and Graham Biehl announced themselves as the future of the class in the United States. The long-time friends, barely out of high school, had already proven they could compete on an international level in the 420. Their first 470 triumph would come just a few months later at the 2004 Miami OCR.In the spring of 2004, Anderson-Mitterling was asked to be a training partner for Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham, who would win 470 gold in Athens that August. There was a catch: he had to bring a heavier crew to better replicate the weight balance onboard Foerster and Burnham's boat. By end of 2004, Anderson-Mitterling was sailing with David Hughes.In search of a skipper, Biehl teamed up with Stu McNay. The pair was fourth at the 2005 OCR, just one spot behind Anderson-Mitterling and Hughes. However, the positions were deceiving. McNay and Biehl finished with 61 points, just shy of double the total for Anderson-Mitterling and Hughes. In fact, McNay and Biehl didn't beat their rivals once in the 12-race series.More than two years later, Anderson-Mitterling's decision still rankles the 21-year-old Biehl. "It's still a little bit of a difficult thing to talk about," he says. "I don't get along with him so well."He and McNay have had less trouble bridging the performance gap between the two teams. The duo was the top American finisher in three of the four European events in which both teams sailed last spring and summer. While McNay and Biehl surged forward, Anderson-Mitterling and Hughes, who'd sparkled at times in 2005 and 2006, struggled to find the groove. "It's been a very, very tough year," says Anderson-Mitterling. One good result, a seventh at the 2007 Rolex Miami OCR, for example, would be followed by a poor once, like a 48th at the Princess Sophia Regatta in Palma, Spain. "By the time the Worlds started [in July], we were completely drained emotionally and physically from dealing with logistical nightmares." The result was a lackluster 22nd, made all the more difficult to swallow because McNay and Biehl finished 10th. With six weeks until the Trials, however, Anderson-Mitterling was upbeat. A trip to China for the Pre-Olympic regatta proved productive. More importantly, the logistical and equipment issues that dogged the team in Europe won't be a factor in Southern California where the Trials will take place. This area is home for Anderson-Mitterling. He learned to sail in San Diego and did his college sailing out of the United States Sailing Center, Long Beach, which will co-host the 470 Trials.Anderson-Mitterling says he and Hughes are preparing for a range of conditions during the Trials, though he doesn't foresee the winds getting over 20 knots. As for what he would prefer? "We definitely feel better in 12 to 15 or zero to five," he says. "We're a little bit bigger than the rest of the U.S. teams so we have an advantage in those conditions. When it's medium trapping conditions and other teams just get out on the wire, they're even or just a touch quicker. So we'll have our work cut out for us in those conditions."Given how well McNay and Biehl sailed during the worlds, that may apply right across the board.A Crowded ConstellationOnce the Star Trials start on Santa Monica Bay, 20 or so teams will be fighting to be the top dog. Until that time, though, each is happy to avoid the spotlight that focuses on the favorite. George Szabo, who won the Pre-Trials in 2006 with a consistent performance in difficult winds, says 2004 Laser Olympian Mark Mendelblatt will be particularly tough to beat. As for Mendelblatt? "I'd have to say right now [Andy] Horton and [George] Szabo are looking really good," he says. "We think we're near that level, but we're not quite there."A year ago, Mendelblatt would've had a hard time making anyone believe that claim. He and Mark Strube had just won the class's European Championships, winning three of five races. But in the time since, Mendelblatt has spent more time up the rig on an America's Cup boat, as the wind spotter for Emirates Team New Zealand, than sailing a Star. He's switched crews as well, to 2000 Olympic champion Magnus Liljedahl.Szabo is also sailing with a new partner, Andrew Scott. Horton spent most of 2006 and 2007 sailing with an America's Cup team, but he and Brad Nichol have been sailing together for a few years and were the top U.S. team at the 2006 Star Worlds. Those three teams are just the tip of the iceberg. John Dane, who's Olympic Trials experience goes back to a third in the 1976 Finn Trials on Lake Ontario, and Austin Sperry are the top-ranked Star pair on the U.S. Sailing Team. They struggled in the Pre-Trials, finishing 11th, but were bringing in a host of all-star foreign training partners for the month leading up to the regatta. Mark Reynolds and Hal Haenel, who won gold in 1992 and silver in 1988, were the top U.S. team at the world championships in Cascais, but are no longer training as rigorously as they once did. Erik Lidecis and Mike Marzahl don't have the flashy international results, but are particularly at home on Santa Monica Bay. And the list of contending skippers goes on: Ben Mitchell, Andrew McDonald, Rick Merriman. "I don't want to get caught leaving anyone's name out," says Mendelblatt. "There are six or seven boats, minimum, that have a chance to win this thing."Horton thinks wind strength will play a key role in the outcome. The Pre-Trials were sailed in some very light winds. "We had races starting with the crew to leeward in five or six knots of breeze and ending drifting," says Horton. Those conditions could change the game dramatically. "If it's that light stuff, you're going to have to roll the dice and be good at it. Once it comes up to about 12 knots here it tends to shift back and forth. If that happens, then you'll see the same four boats at the top every race. It's the guys who are the fittest, who have been here the longest, have the boat set up perfectly, and can deal with it race after race."Horton plans on being one of those four. Of course, so do half a dozen other boats, at least.Women's 470Host: Alamitos Bay YC and U.S. Sailing Center, Long BeachContenders: Amanda Clark & Sarah Mergenthaler, Erin Maxwell & Isabelle KinsolvingDark Horse: Molly Carapiet & Molly O'BryanIn October of 2003, Clark, Mergenthaler, Maxwell, and Kinsolving were all involved in a tense three-way battle for the 2004 Olympic Berth. Kinsolving, crewing for Katie McDowell, won the regatta and placed fifth in the Athens Olympics. While Clark and Mergenthaler continued to plug away, Kinsolving and Maxwell struggled to find the right partner for their sophomore Olympic efforts. The two sailors teamed up in June of 2006. The obvious question is whether they have had enough time to gel. "Just enough," says Maxwell. "I think we have a pretty good feel for each other's strengths."Maxwell and Kinsolving beat Clark and Mergenthaler in three of four European events in 2007. But, says Maxwell, this doesn't mean they are a prohibitive favorite. "I think the conditions will play a factor," she says. "If you could tell me the conditions ahead of time I could tell you who I think the favorite is." At 6'1", Kinsolving has a significant height advantage over Mergenthaler, which will help in heavier air. But the 470 Trials could be a light-air affair. At the Pre-Trials in 2006, in predominantly light air, Clark and Mergenthaler were second in a mixed fleet, trailing only Mikee Anderson-Mitterling and David Hughes.LaserHost: Rhode Island Sailing FoundationContenders: Andrew Campbell, Brad Funk, and Clay JohnsonDark Horses: Ben Richardson, Kyle Rogachenko, Trevor MooreCampbell and Funk have been sailing against each other in Lasers for a long time. But, unlike in other Olympic classes, the familiarity hasn't bred contempt. "After the Trials, we're as good friends as you'll find on the circuit," says Campbell. "It's just one of those funny times in a sailing relationship where you can't be too buddy-buddy."At the Pre-Trials in October of 2006, Funk and Campbell finished the regatta tied on points with 20, with Campbell winning the tiebreaker. The Trials could be just as close. Campbell finished 29th, 11 spots better than Funk, At the ISAF Worlds in Cascais. It was a solid result for Campbell in conditions, heavy air, where he has struggled. His speed in heavy air could be pivotal since the regatta is taking place in Rhode Island at a time of year when stronger winds are common.FinnHost: Newport Harbor YCFavorite: Zach RaileyContenders: Geoff Ewenson, Bryan Boyd, Darrell Peck, Andy CaseyRailey, a former Laser wunderkind and older brother of Radial star Paige Railey, has been the top U.S. sailor at all the major international Finn events in 2007. Hovering on Railey's tail are a host of talented sailors. Ewenson finished just a few spots behind Railey in Hyeres and at the Europeans. At the Pre-Trials in 2006-five races in very light conditions-Railey was fourth, trailing Boyd, Peck, and Casey.The fleet at the Pre-Trials was big, deep, and full of characters, including a few loose cannons capable of testing anyone's patience and focus. "You can't get too focused on winning," says Ewenson, "you just need to do all the little things right. If I had to say it in two words, it would be 'mental toughness.'"Women's RS:XHost: Alamitos Bay YC and U.S. Sailing Center, Long BeachContenders: Nancy Rios, Farrah HallRios dominated the Pre-Trials in 2006, winning six of eight races. However, Hall was the top American at the Cascais worlds, finishing 58th to Rios' 63rd. Whomever wins this event will still need to qualify the United States for a berth in this class at the 2008 RS:X World Championships in Auckland in January. Men's RS:XHost: Alamitos Bay YC and U.S. Sailing Center, Long BeachContenders: Ben Barger, Mike GebhardtThe picture for the Men's RS:X was extremely clear until May 1, when Gebhardt, a two-time Olympic medalist in windsurfing, decided to end his seven-year retirement and try for his fifth Olympic berth. Barger had been all but assured of an Olympic berth to that point; he won every race at the Pre-Trials in 2006.Then Gebi, as he is universally known, had a dream about a remarkable comeback to the sport. Despite his age, 41, and lack of time on the new board, Gebhardt finished just 2 points behind Barger at the Worlds in Cascais.Gebhardt says this campaign is about promoting his holistic approach to athletics. However, he is a keen competitor with tremendous Trials experience, and he says he feels as fit as he ever has.TornadoHost: San Diego YCFavorites: John Lovell & Charlie OgletreeDark Horses: Robbie Daniel & Hunter StunziLovell and Ogletree, who won silver in Athens, are strong favorites to lock up the U.S. berth in the Tornado class for the fourth consecutive Olympics. Still, says Lovell, they're taking no chances. "We're not taking anything for granted," he says. "This is the most important regatta in the quadriennium."Daniel has competed in numerous Olympic Trials. There are also the emerging teams of Don Thinschmidt and Drew Wierda and Colin Merrick and John Sampson.Then there's San Diego's famous kelp. "It's really tough, especially getting off the starting line," says Lovell. "If you happen to get stuck on a piece of kelp and lose your lane, there really isn't much you can do about it."49erHost: Southwestern YCContenders: Morgan Larson & Pete Spaulding, Tim Wadlow & Chris Rast, Dalton Bergan & Zack Maxam"If it was a normal regatta I would say it would be between Morgan [and Pete] and us," says Rast, "But the Trials are pretty special, it's going to be a three-boat race. It's about getting a good start and having good speed. Dalton and Zack, they have really good speed."Rast sailed in the 2004 Olympics for Switzerland. The opportunity to team with Wadlow, who finished fifth in the 2004 Olympics with Spaulding, convinced him to take advantage of his birthright; he was born in Ohio, and his mother lives in North Carolina. Wadlow was in need of a crew because Spaudling elected to sail with Larson. As is often the case when former teammates compete against each other, there's some tension. Bergan thinks this regatta will be a test of speed, with teams looking to minimize maneuvers. Rast agrees, but only to a point. "I know the conditions are tough," he says. "but if you practice enough you're able to pull off good jibes and tacks and you don't lose very much. I think that's one of our strengths."