The midpoint between the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the Beijing Games in 2008 is an appropriate time to assess the U.S. Sailing Team’s progress. And as you’d expect, two years out from the Games, competition in all 11 classes is ramping up worldwide as sailors vie for the top spots in their respective class rankings and step up their fundraising effort. To give a sense of how competitive Olympic sailing has become, consider that in Athens 21 countries won at least one of 33 available medals.It’s certainly difficult to excel at the Games, especially when many countries are now supporting their athletes with unprecedented funding. In contrast, most American sailors must support themselves, relying on scarce funding sources. It’s a daunting task to simultaneously train, compete, and search for money.Reviewing past results of every Olympic class, it’s clear that winning a medal often requires more than one attempt. Olympic champions spend decades developing their skills, but in the United States, the Olympic classes-with the exception of the Laser, and to a lesser extent, the Star, have virtually no presence. In addition, the Olympic racing format is rarely used by yacht clubs or other classes.So what are we to do to foster the Olympic experience among more U.S. sailors? I’ve long believed our collegiate sailing programs develop many of America’s top sailors, and this is supported by the fact that in the past six Olympic Games, from 1984 to 2004, 32 of 69 Olympians were college All-Americans.This is because there is no better avenue than college sailing for our sailors to develop tactics and boathandling. Competitors rotate boats after every one or two races, and sail as many as 18 races every weekend in the spring and fall. As a result, Americans are the best in the world at close-quarters maneuvering, starts, and understanding the rules. The downside to this, of course, is that U.S. sailors struggle with long courses, developing boatspeed, and competing at the international level. At this year’s Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Spring Championships in Charleston, S.C., I witnessed the closest racing I’d ever seen in college sailing. The team race and dinghy events were decided in the final race, the skill level was incredible, and good sportsmanship was displayed on and off the water. I’m hopeful these sailors will represent the U.S. internationally in the coming years, but the unfortunate reality is that they won’t because, as ICSA president Mitch Brindley tells me, many of them leave the sport after graduation. “For many sailors,” he says, “the collegiate experience will be the pinnacle of their sailing lives.”A few collegiate sailors will move on to professional sailing, but the opportunities are rare. Only seven Americans competed in the Volvo Ocean Race, and at last count, less than 30 were on the sailing rosters of America’s Cup teams. The best and most accessible arena for our top young sailors who want to continue at a high level is, therefore, the Olympics. Strong performances at the Games build pride at home, respect internationally, raise the skill level across all classes, inspire our youth, and earn attention for sailing.Under Olympic Sailing Committee Chairman Dean Brenner and US SAILING director Charlie Leighton, $1.5million has been raised to support the Olympic effort over the past year. These funds have been donated by individuals. It is a start, but more help is needed to give the athletes the backing they need to acquire more international experience.Looking forward, the Olympic Sailing Committee is working to recognize and develop young sailors for future Games. This effort should be supported at the yacht club and sailing association level; supporting a promising sailor and bidding to host major international events. These events expose sailors and supporters to the caliber of big-fleet international competition, and when there’s a big regatta in town, participation in that class, or classes, will increase. I encourage race committees to study the Olympic regatta format and replicate the system. More sailors will become familiar with it, and in the long term America’s Olympic chances will improve.There are many priorities the OSC must balance. One question that persists is whether to fund classes with the best medal prospects or to focus on areas where the United States is weak. The parent U.S. Olympic Committee demands that funds it allocates be spent on the best medal hopefuls. Strong results in world championships carry considerable weight, and consequently, classes without strong support have the most difficulty developing sailors. This is where individuals and clubs can help improve our medal chances.
If the Games were in 2006, how’d the USA fare?Laser Radial-Paige Railey and Anna Tunnicliffe are the top-ranked sailors in the world, and the competition between them to represent the United States should be the toughest competition they face en route to the medal race. With neither sailor having been to the Games, a medal will be that much harder to win, but this class is one of our best bets for gold.Yngling-Sally Barkow, Carrie Howe, and Debbie Capozzi finished third at the 2006 Yngling Worlds. Victories at other major European events, and a healthy amount of international sailing makes this trio one of the strongest medal contenders. To get to the Games, they’ll have to defeat a tough field of challengers, but if they qualify, they’ll be gold-medal players.Star-The United States is historically strong in the Star class and I could see any number of skippers-Mark Reynolds, Paul Cayard, John Kostecki, Vince Brun, Andy Lovell, Mark Mendelblatt, Andy Horton, and John Dane-making a serious run at a medal.Tornado-If they survive the U.S. Tornado Trials on top, which is likely, John Lovell and Charlie Ogletree have a solid chance at medaling again, capitalizing on the experience they gained in winning the silver in Athens and OSC top-level funding.49er-The U.S. team has strong talent in this class, but there are numerous talented teams to step over in order to bring home a medal. Athens rep Tim Wadlow, now sailing with Chris Rast, faces tough competition from Morgan Larson and Pete Spaulding (who crewed with Wadlow in Athens), as well as Dalton Bergan and Zack Maxam, in getting to the Games. Once there, in the light winds of Quingdao, the U.S. rep could surprise us.470 Men-There are plenty of talented American sailors in this class, including youth sailing standouts Mikee Anderson-Mitterling and Dave Hughes, Stu McNay and Graham Biehl, and Adam Roberts and Nick Martin. Currently outside ISAF’s top-10 ranking, and early yet in their Olympic careers, a medal won’t come easy, if at all. If Athens gold medalists Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham show up at the Trials and win, all bets are off.Laser-A medal in the Laser is a long shot. College Sailor of the Year Andrew Campbell, Brad Funk, and Clay Johnson are all strong contenders for the U.S. team’s Olympic berth, but they are early in their Olympic careers.470 Women-There are four teams that have the potential to do well: Amanda Clark and Sarah Merganthaler, Erin Maxwell and Alice Manard, Carissa Harris and Isabelle Kinsolving, and Molly Carapiet and Molly O’Bryan. But the class’s top-ranked foreign teams will likely lock up the medals.Finn-An American has not won a medal in the Finn class since 1992. The most promising young sailor is Zach Railey (brother of Paige Railey). It’s early in Railey’s career, and class veterans, working on multiple visits to the Games, will probably keep his medal hopes in check.RS:X Men and RS:X Women-The U.S. Sailing team has struggled in sailboard classes in recent Games. Three men-Seth Besse, Ben Barger, and Steve Bodner, would have a good chance of qualifying the United States in this discipline, but nothing more. Women’s sailboard veteran Lanee Butler Beashel is not expected to return after her four straight Olympic appearances. Qualifying the U.S. for an Olympic slot will be difficult.