A Revival for US Olympic Sailing

Following a strong showing at the Rio Test Event, the US Sailing Team Sperry prove that the 2016 games could have some red, white and blue on the podium.

In September of 2012, the prominence of Olympic sailing was a looming question mark. Following a disappointing performance in Weymouth, the US Sailing Team Sperry has spent the last three years undergoing some major changes, from coaching and administrative staff to the development of their younger athletes. Recently, more US Athletes have been standing atop podiums in World Championships, the Pan American Games, and many ISAF World Cup events. These renewed efforts appear to be paying off, as evidenced by the solid performance by the team at the Aquece Rio Test Event.

The highlight for the US Sailing Team Sperry was the gold medal won by 470 sailors Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha. “We had a great final series, and the last race before the medal race we struggled,” says Haeger. “To pull through on the actual medal race was great. “

In the medal race, Haeger and Provancha had to stay well ahead of the British Sailing Team’s Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark to win, so the final competition turned into a match race situation. “We used the committee boat as a pick when we realized they were starting to tail us,” says Provancha. “It took us back to the basics of college sailing.” A starting penalty against the Brits helped seal the deal and the American girls stood atop the podium.

Beyond the golden performance, three other US Sailing Team members placed in the top ten in their fleets: Stu McNay and David Hughes placed 7th overall in Men’s 470, Paige Railey placed 4th overall in the Laser Radial and Charlie Buckingham finished 7th overall in the Laser. For those teams, the event in Rio was a valuable learning opportunity 340 days out from the games.

Buckingham stayed in the top ten of the Laser fleet through the event, steadily improving each day. “At the beginning of the event I found myself making simple mistakes,” says Buckingham, “but as the event progressed I was able to get more in sync with the venue and improve"

A sentiment echoed by many of his teammates, Buckingham struggled with learning the complicated current patterns on the many racecourses on Guanabara Bay. “The currents on the inside courses are complex and a major factor. Outside, they are less complex but still a factor nonetheless.”

Helena Scutt, on the 49er FX, echoed Buckingham’s observations. “Since the racing was tricky, and in conditions that were different than what we were used to, we didn't perform as well as we'd hoped. It's nothing that more time sailing in the venue can't fix.”

Going into the Aquece Rio, the US Sailing Team Sperry has only qualified in five classes: Finn, Laser, Laser Radial, Men’s 470 and Women’s 470. For those sailors, the pressure has diminished slightly, until the Olympic trials in early 2016, when the US Sailing Team Sperry will make its selections.

On the other hand, for Paris Henken and Helena Scutt, they will have to qualify twice between now and the Olympics. First, they have to qualify the USA as a country in the FX, an opportunity only available at two more events: The 49er FX Worlds in Argentina in November, and the ISAF World Cup in Miami in January. The pressure is on, but Henken is prepared. “You have to have the mindset through all of your sailing that you’re going,” says Henken. “We don’t think about, ‘what if I don’t go,’ we put everything into the mindset of ‘we are going,’ because that is the plan.”

The US Sailing Team Sperry sailors will continue to build their local knowledge in Rio. Railey remains in Rio following the event for additional training, and McNay and Hughes will return in September for a two-week camp.

The consensus from the athletes, coaches and organizers was that event was a valuable step in learning more about the venue a year ahead of the actual games. “In the end, the regatta was a ‘test’ in the truest sense of the word,” says Hughes. “We tested equipment, got a feeling for how the courses will be managed, and grew our own Rio knowledge. We came away with many lessons that will help guide us over the next year.”

A year ago at the first Olympic Test Event, US Sailing Team Sperry 470 sailors Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha entered the medal race in a three-way tie for the lead, and finished outside of the top three in frustrating fashion. This time, however, the Americans would not be denied. "It doesn’t feel real," said Haeger, a US All-American athlete and ICSA College Sailor of the Year. "We’ve been battling this whole regatta, and had a great final series. The last race yesterday we struggled a bit, so to pull through in this medal race, and to be wearing these [medals], is so cool."