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The Crossover Effect

What does a long career in top-level dinghy racing have to do with endurance fitness competitions? More than you think, says the good doctor.

April 6, 2021
Fitness runner finishing a race
Derrick Fries Ph.D., two-time Sunfish World champion, channeled his inner competitiveness to fitness competitions and discovered sailing parallels that helped him achieve his goals. Courtesy Derrick Fries Ph.D.

I fell in love with sailing at a very early age. There were no video games and our black and white television was good for three stations. Spending a full day on the water practicing finding windshafts was the absolute best entertainment I could find, and I had all the time in the world to do it. But this changed as I got older. Then there were regattas, mostly two-day events, creating a large time drain. I burned endless hours rigging and derigging, traveling, and packing and unpacking the car. I loved it, but like many sailors, I struggled to balance all this with work and family.

One of the biggest benefits of racing—mostly singlehanded sailboats—was that it taught me the value of being physically fit. I enjoyed the anaerobic and aerobic part of conditioning. To train, I joined the high school track team and ran marathons. To win my first sailing world title, I committed to a rigorous training program: running, swimming and working out six days a week. But getting on the water to practice was more difficult. After becoming a middle school principal in 1996, I worked long hours with only three weeks of annual vacation. Each sailing season, I was lucky to race three or four regattas. Practice time was increasingly limited. As I climbed the administrative ladder, with a family of three boys, finding time for two full days of regatta sailing was difficult. I still worked out six days a week, but all between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m.

The Stealth Choice

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By now, having little or no time to sail left me feeling lost. I still had an intrinsic desire to compete but little opportunity to do so. As time went on, I had to decide how to compete and still maintain a family-work balance. I worked out each day in “stealth mode,” completed by the time my family awoke. Sitting through boring meetings, I often wondered, what sport would allow me use of my good sailing skills with a reduced time commitment? I had to compete and needed sailing but felt forced to seek a substitution…and this was not an easy thing to accept.

Triathlons were the solution. Little did I realize the power of decades of developing my sailing skills. It was now 2006 and I would dive into this transformation full speed ahead. I missed sailing, but I could do a Triathlon two hours from home on a Sunday and be home by noon. Triathlons generally start 6:30 am to 8:00 am to avoid auto traffic on open road courses. Depending on the event type and distance, the race itself could be 70 minutes (Sprint) or 180 minutes (Olympic). In sailing, we might be just getting out to the first race by noon. This was a watershed time management issue but clearly a substitution for my love for the wind and water. However, I grossly underestimated the power of my sailing experience. Skills transformed all three triathlon disciplines.

Swimming: The triathlon community has little knowledge of wave patterns, current, anchor lines, or buoys. With this knowledge, even at age 60, I sometimes could win overall an event by swimming an entirely different route that took in maximum current in a way no one else understood.

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Biking: This was a big learning process because it was my least experienced discipline, but the bike is all about wind and aerodynamic shapes and riding style. This was an easy learning curve for me.

Running: Much to my surprise, those long days on the water and the full concentration needed for a sailing race would give me mental toughness for the run. On some races, wind was also an issue and my strategy of what road position to take gave me an edge.

Sailing Transition Power

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Since starting in 2006, I have completed more than 170 triathlons, including two Full Ironman competitions. In every single event, a sailing concept aided my performance. This transitioning of sailing skill to triathlons was a huge power surge for me. It was just a lot easier than I had expected. The biking discipline had so many sailing principles. Hand position, knee and leg rotation, all were needed for the best aerodynamic position on a dedicated triathlon bike. It was all about managing wind resistance and then, with a cross wind, about reducing wind drag. As all this evolved, I found a good balance with family and sport. It was now time to set a new goal: Since I had won national titles in sailing could I win a national title in triathlon?

By 2012, after a lot of triathlons, I set out to win a national age group title. I really liked the Sprint Distance triathlon, that of 400- to 750-meter swim (depending on event), 20k bike, and a 5k run. In triathlons, with hundreds of people at events, scoring is by five-year age groups. In 2013, the Triathlon Nationals were in Cleveland, Ohio, with the swimming portion on Lake Erie. I had an excellent swim and bike and hung on in the run to win my first National Title in the 60-64 age group. In 2015, in St. Paul, Minnesota, I won and set a US Sprint Distance record in the 60-64 age of 60 min and 29 seconds. The power of sailing made all this happen.

My three sons are now young men and I am a university professor. I have more time to practice sailing, the best sport in the world. Despite years of working 60-hour weeks, I never really felt like I left sailing. I had just transferred my honed sailing skills to a new sport that required less time. I still do all three triathlon disciplines, but I have slowed down some, following a twelve-hour open-heart surgery in 2019. The immense power of sailing gave me skills I initially greatly underestimated yet found embedded deep in my soul. I am grateful to be back racing singlehanded dinghies. We work to find that joy of being on water and a time balance. But the one beacon that always remains is that the water, waves, and wind shifts have overwhelmed me for a lifetime.

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Derrick Fries was a two-time All-American at Michigan State University, won the Sunfish World Championship twice, the Sunfish NAs four times, the Force 5 World Championship twice, and the Laser Masters.

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