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Traits Among World Champions

These sailors share a few distinct characteristics that help them to achieve their racing agendas. The "Jobson Report" from our March 2010 issue

March 17, 2010
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Gary Jobson 368

During the America’s Cup summer of 1988 in San Diego I watched a teenage sailor named George Szabo sail his Laser. He was fast. That year, and again four years later, I teamed with him as a tuning partner for some local Laser racing. He was a huge help, even though he was more than half my age. Szabo’s skills have since been honed through 23 years in San Diego’s deep Star fleet, which includes two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Reynolds. From his first Star event in 1986, at the age of 16, Szabo has ascended the class ranks, sailing with and working alongside Reynolds as a sailmaker. Szabo is persistent-a necessary trait when it comes to winning a Star class world championship-or any world championship for that matter. After many attempts, at the age of 39, he finally won his Star world title in 2009 with crew Rick Peters.

Szabo’s world championship win was part of an extraordinary trend in 2009, where American sailors collected international accolades across a wide variety of disciplines and classes. World titles were also won by Mike Martin and Jeff Nelson in the International 505, David Loring in the Sunfish, Chris Larson in the Melges 24, Bora Gulari in the Moth, Matt Struble in the DN, John Ruf in the 2.4 Metre, Jim Richardson in the Farr 40, and Matt Fisher in the Lightning. There’s a lot we can learn from these sailors, especially about what it takes to win at the international level. I reached out to each of them, and found that there are two shared traits: they’ve been training and competing for a long time, and each of them is intensely goal-oriented.

Take Matt Fisher, who has raced Lightnings for 41 years. Starting at the age of 5, he and his brother Greg traded off crewing for their father. In 2009, Fisher won his world championship with Dan and Tobi Moriarty.
“I’ve been racing with my teammates for 12 years,” says Fisher. “We trained specifically for this championship for the past two years. We geared 2009 around being prepared for conditions we expected at Lake Champlain [site of the event].”

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Of his training routine, he says: “My Dad [George Fisher] used to be my coach. We raced against each other aggressively for 30 years. We traded notes and we were blunt but polite, in how we discussed each other’s strategy around the course. He passed away two years ago, but we developed two of the fastest boats in the class.”

David Loring, from Charleston, S.C., has been plying the Sunfish class for 25 years. “I focused on training in the Bahamas for about nine months before the regatta to get used to sailing in waves,” says Loring. “Physical training is one of the most important aspects of being able to win a big regatta.”

Loring feels his training is a little unique, in that he understands his strengths and weaknesses, and is methodical about which events he sails. “After so many regattas in the Sunfish and the Laser with large numbers of boats, I don’t feel it’s necessary to sail in a ton of regattas. I actually feel it hurts me because a lot of regattas are in light-air venues where, physically, it doesn’t help me get any stronger. I focus on a few regattas and key in on certain areas of my sailing to work on.”

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After 2.4 Metre sailor John Ruf, from Pewaukee, Wis., won a bronze medal in the Paralympic Games in China, he returned to his a full-time job, which prevented him from putting in a rigorous training schedule for the 2009 2.4 Metre Worlds. But his workload never kept him from putting in the necessary effort to win.

“Fortunately, the U.S. Nationals were right before the Worlds and most competitors sailed both regattas,” says Ruf, who discovered the 2.4 Metre in 1999. “It was a great tune-up.”

Expounding the value of international competition, Ruf says: “I believe it’s more intense and aggressive . . . the best way to improve is to sail internationally.”

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Having benefited from working with numerous coaches, Ruf is firm believer in coaching. “With coaches, my sailing reached a whole new level. The right coach makes the difference.”

Last year was an important one for professional sailor Chris Larson, of Annapolis, Md., who won the Melges 24 Worlds (and finished second in the J/24 Worlds). Both events were sailed on his home turf, and to prepare for the Melges 24 event, Larson and his Canadian crew trained for three weeks. They did not use a coach because of funding issues, but they did find a work-around. “We made the best of it by sailing with teams that did have coaches.”

Matt Struble won his first DN championship at the age of 11, when he won the North American championship silver fleet title. That was 26 years ago, and last year he won his third consecutive DN World title. Struble, of Bay City, Mich., says DN training is unique. “The real work is done months before the major event. I spend a lot of time testing new sails, mast, and runners. The final stage is easy, it’s just time on the ice.”

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An important part of Struble’s training is the use of video. “A couple of years ago I started to video my training. I seem to be harder on myself than coaches, so the video has worked out well. I like to find areas to work on that others have not thought of.”

While the other sailors covered thus far have benefited from long tenures in their respective classes, one exception to our group is 2009 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Bora Gulari. He didn’t have years in the Moth class, but in the lead up to the 2009 CST Composites Moth Worlds in Oregon, he had plenty of hours, logging upwards of 4,000 miles on his foiling flyer. But the 33-year-old sailors says he didn’t go it alone. Instead, he trained with dozens of other American Moth sailors as they collectively elevated the U.S. Moth scene. “We made a commitment as a fleet to work together and share information,” says Gulari. “This approach paid off huge.”

One of the most impressive performances of the year was that of Mike Martin, who won the 97-boat 505 Worlds in San Francisco Bay. In years past he sailed the 505 as a crew, winning the Worlds in 1999. In 2000 he set out to do what no one in the class had ever done: win as both crew and skipper. He teamed up with Jeff Nelson and they got to work. “We put in a huge amount of time in our preparation for this event,” says Martin. They trained weekly in Long Beach, Calif., and traveled to San Francisco to practice on the Bay. “We did a massive amount of boat preparation,” he adds. “The boat prep paid off when [in the second race of the Worlds] we broke our rig and had a spare fully-tuned rig ready to go. We also had an on-the-water support boat that we shared with another team, stocked with lots of spare parts.”

Jim Richardson has been one of the top Farr 40 skippers for many years (though he notes he finished sixth of seven boats at his first Farr 40 regatta in 1997). He’s been a regular on the international circuit, so it’s easy to understand why his success in the class has been precipitously upward. “The international teams we sail against travel a lot and seek the best competition available, regardless of venue,” he says. “These are teams that expend a lot of resources, in terms of costs associated with racing, and in terms of practice time and preparation. These investments make for very talented teams, which in turn makes all of us better sailors.”

With the nucleus of his crew having sailed together for many years, he says they are “able to sort through most issues they encounter, and they rarely fall victim to repeating mistakes.” He always practices for three days before a major regatta, and a week before a world championship.

Hopefully you’ve been inspired by this impressive line-up of world champions. It’s early in the year, and there is plenty of time to put your own plan in place to achieve your goals. So get out there, have fun, and sail fast.

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