The 2008 Olympic Regatta rewarded consistency, yet winning a medal often required the willingness to take risks. It was a light-air regatta, yet some of the most important races were sailed in heavy air. It was a regatta that demanded experience, yet the two medalists from the United States were first-time Olympians under the age of 26. It was a regatta where the key moment came in the first race. It was a regatta that was rarely decided until the final race. It was a regatta sailed in a country known for its extensive history. It was a regatta hosted by a city that has been built largely in the last 30 years. It was a regatta won by those who treated it like any other event, and those who embraced the entire Olympic experience. It was a regatta won through no-stone-unturned preparation, yet some teams prepped themselves right off the podium. It was a regatta where every point counted. It was the regatta where having one more point going into the last race might’ve kept one sailor in the medals. It was a regatta where the U.S. team won races in four different fleets, but didn’t take a medal in any of those four. It was a completely unique regatta, yet shared many things in common with past Olympics.
Perhaps Andrew Campbell, the U.S. Laser representative, said it best when summarizing his first day of Olympic competition. He had finished 14th and 18th-a disappointing, but hardly fatal, start to his regatta. For the most part Campbell had played the middle of the course on his beats. “I think I was overconservative today,” he said. “I got away from my usual conservative, patient style and tried to bring it back to the middle a little bit too much. I’m going to get more comfortable with the group and comfortable with the situation. I’ve just got to stay patient and start to play it a little deeper into the corners and be more aggressive about boat racing and not worrying about a big score.”
Come again? Campbell’s debrief seems rife with contradiction. But for anyone who was intimately involved with the regatta, it makes sense. Just like the wind in Qingdao, you can’t spend too much time thinking about it.
The next day Campbell won the only race. “It’s a relief to know it is actually possible,” he said. “I don’t think it changes my outlook or even my strategy, it’s just a nice bonus to have a good race.”
His win was part of a historic day for the U.S. team, which won six of 11 races off Qingdao. Of the 46 races sailed subsequently, a U.S. sailor or team took the gun in only one. Campbell would finish in the top 10 only once more.
While the U.S. Sailing Team had a historic day, the British team had a historic regatta, taking home six medals, four of them gold. British sailors qualified for the medal race in every fleet. After the regatta, team manager Stephen Park spoke of how the team used the extensive time it spent training in Qingdao to get comfortable with the surroundings, the onshore site, and the race venues. Familiarity bred success. The U.S. team wasn’t far behind in the number of days spent on site. However, its time in Qingdao led to two disastrous gear decisions, which effectively eliminated from contention the American sailors in the Star and Tornado when the wind blew more strongly than history suggested it would.
For the first 45 minutes of the Olympic Regatta, everything seemed in order for the U.S. team. The wind, a 5- to 6-knot easterly with plenty of holes was as expected. So too were the positions of the U.S. sailors competing on opening day. Finn sailor Zach Railey, ranked 12th in the world and with just one podium finish at a major Finn championship on his resume, was in 15th of 26 as he rounded the second windward mark and started down the run to the finish. At almost that exact same moment, the U.S. Yngling team of Sally Barkow, Carrie Howe, and Debbie Capozzi, which had finished first, third, second, and fourth in the class’s last four world championships, passed through the leeward gate in second, having picked up three spots on the run.
For the ensuing legs, both Railey and the Yngling team chose the right side of the course-the two fleets shared a circle. Railey jibed after rounding the windward mark and separated from the leaders, who were working the left side of the course. The Yngling team led a group around the right gate and held on port.
At that point, however, the form fell apart. And, at least on the Finn and Yngling circle, it never fully returned to normal. Riding better pressure down the run, Railey passed 13 competitors, including Ben Ainslie, who continued his tradition of starting his Olympic regattas on a sour note, and finished second. A huge left shift all but inverted the Yngling fleet. By the time the U.S. team crossed the finish line, they’d dropped from second to second-to-last.
Given the length and pressure of the Olympics, neither result seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. Barkow, said head coach Gary Bodie before the regatta started, is one of the mentally toughest sailors he’s coached. It wasn’t a question of whether she’d bounce back, but rather how high. Railey’s result? Chalk it up to youthful exuberance-he’s just 24-and a bit of luck.
“I took a little bit of a risk going the other way from the fleet,” Railey said. “I didn’t really see [a puff], but figured that the wind was really light and hoped to get some separation and get a puff. That was a little bit of luck on that one, for sure, but I’ll take it.”
But he wouldn’t have anyone telling him he was punching above his weight. “It’s an honor to be leading this right now,” he said after a pair of seconds on Day 2 bumped him into first. “But we’ve been training really hard for this. I came into this regatta ready to race.”
In fact, those initial results proved prophetic. Railey never dropped below second in the overall standings. Racing from a position of strength, he managed his regatta beautifully. The Yngling team searched for its comfort zone for the duration of the event, one good result following a bad one. In the final race, they fell just short.
While exuding confidence onshore, Railey sailed with restraint. He knew he was merely renting first place until Ainslie, who won two of the first four races, could discard a 10th. While Ainslie took over first with another win in Race 5, and then steadily distanced himself from the rest of the fleet, the Florida native coolly defended second with two sevenths and an eighth. In the eighth race of the regatta-the last before going to the medal race-Railey showed poise beyond his years. He rounded the leeward mark in ninth and took advantage of the fact he had yet to sail a double-digit race and force Guillaume Florent, of France, the third-place boat, into a poor score. This widened the gap between Railey and Ainslie to 12 points, but also padded Railey’s lead over third. Florent was none too happy, approaching Railey in the boatpark after sailing and asking to speak with him about the race. If it rattled Railey, he didn’t show it.
“That’s sailboat racing,” he said. “You know at this level that it could happen. I would have expected, given the situation, the same thing to happen to me.”
In the medal race, it did. While the race committee tried three times to get a race off in very light conditions, Railey struggled to find any breathing room beneath a suffocating cover applied by Ainslie. The next day, when the race took place in 15 to 20 knots and pouring rain, Ainslie was no less aggressive. But again Railey made the right choice when given the opportunity. With seconds left in the pre-start, Railey found himself squeezed by Ainslie into a pack of boats. He sacrificed any hope of an on-time start by tacking away and ducking the pack. Though he was five seconds late to the line, he was in clear air, and before the beat was a quarter finished, Railey had what he needed, a controlling position over Daniel Birgmark, of Sweden. Beating Birgmark assured Railey of silver. While Ainslie powered away to his fourth win of the regatta, Railey simply stayed between Birgmark and the finish.
Railey’s silver medal was the product of thousands of decisions, many made long before he even arrived in China. But that decision to jibe around the second windward mark of the first race loomed larger than most, if not all. “That was a big moment,” he said. “It gave me a lot of confidence in knowing that my decision making was good, I had a little bit of luck on my side, and it really gave me the momentum to push through. It definitely carried over into the other races.”
While Railey’s key decision came early in the regatta, Anna Tunnicliffe’s came at the last possible moment. Tunnicliffe sailed a phenomenally steady regatta, finishing eight of nine races between second and sixth. She avoided risks like thousand-year eggs, perfectly willing to let her opponents push deep into corners and win races. It was a logical strategy for the top sailor in ISAF’s world rankings and the defending champion from the 2007 Pre-Olympic Regatta. She knew she had the speed to win, so she decided to let it work for her. But it wasn’t easy, especially in a place like Qingdao where corners paid off so often, thought not always the same corner and rarely for the same person. Tunnicliffe never seemed rattled by the attention of the press onshore or competition on the water, but she revealed after the regatta she had moments of doubt.
“I had a really tough phase in the middle of the event, when the drops started coming in,” she said. “All my competitors had a bad drop, but really good races. I had consistent scores, fives or sixes. So when they got their drop and all moved ahead of me it was really tough for me to stay mentally focused and stay in it.”
Tunnicliffe’s coaches, longtime U.S. Sailing Team coach Luther Carpenter and her former college coach, Mitch Brindley, of Old Dominion University, told her to stay the course, that it would pay off. Gradually it did. Sarah Steyaert ,of France, was black flagged in Race 5 and Sarah Blanck, of Australia, was 12th in Race 6. In Race 7, Tunnicliffe had her worst race of the regatta, a 15th. But Gintare Volungeviciute, of Lithuania, was 21st in the race and Jo Aleh, of New Zealand, who’d been winning the regatta through five races, was 14th.
After nine races-and heading into the medal race-Tunnicliffe was in first and had guaranteed herself a medal of some color. But unlike Railey, who’d set as his goal to stand on the podium, Tunnicliffe had her sights set on gold.
When the X-Flag went up after the start of the medal race. Tunnicliffe didn’t hesitate. She’d been close to Aleh and heard the race committee say that the New Zealand sailor was over. She was one of four boats that turned back to restart. Was she over? It’s hard to say for sure either way. But there no question what was the safe decision. Now, however, Tunnicliffe was in a significant hole and had 30 minutes of sailing to grind back. At the windward mark Tunnicliffe was eighth. With Volungeviciute third and Lijia Xu, of China, fourth, it dropped the American into silver. By the bottom mark, Tunnicliffe had fallen to ninth and was just one point ahead of bronze. The race committee had moved the top mark to account for a left shift. The safe move would’ve been to get on the lifted tack. But this time, Tunnicliffe went with her gut.
“Doing the math up the second beat I was not winning gold and barely hanging on to silver,” she said. “I saw a puff on the left and was just hoping that was going to be the shift to bring me back up.”
It was that, another 20 degrees or more of left shift. It was almost too much of a good thing. Tunnicliffe tacked into the shift and overstood the port layline by a half dozen boatlengths. But it saved the gold medal. On that beat Tunncliffe moved up six spots, which guaranteed her a gold. She eventually finished second behind Volungeviciute, the silver medalist. Xu finished third, earning China’s first sailing medal.
The two medals won by the United States in sailing at the 2008 Olympics mirrors the haul, in color as well as count, from the 2004 Games. However, there is a significant difference. The 2004 team was chock full of veterans and the medals were won by two of the most experienced teams the U.S. has ever sent to an Olympic regatta. The 2008 squad was largely comprised of Olympic rookies, with just four of 18 sailors having previous Olympic experience. It represented a new generation of sailors. Not all will be back to compete in another Olympics, but some will. Which is why the 2008 Olympics, while being the end of a long effort for every sailor on the U.S. team, also feels like something of a new beginning.