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Team Haeger/Provancha: The Stars Aligned

They’re teammates, soulmates, fierce competitors, and the US Sailing team’s most dynamic pair.

August 2, 2016
haeger/provancha
When there’s talk of medal potential, Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha top the list. With the support of coach Dave Ullman, they’ve remained consistent since winning the Aquece Rio test event in 2015. US Sailing Team Sperry/Will Ricketson

It’s 8:30 a.m. and I’m sitting at a table outside a Starbucks down the street from the US Sailing Center in Miami. With me are Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha. They’re one month out from their final qualifying regatta for the Rio Olympics. The pressure is on, but you’d never know it. They’ll be training today with the U.S. men’s team, but the session isn’t scheduled to start until 10.

“That means it won’t actually begin until 10:30,” says Provancha.

“Yeah,” chimes in Haeger with a playful laugh. “The boys are always late.”

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In a time of media-trained athletes with throwaway one-liners, the two women are surprisingly candid.

“We tend to say things other people won’t,” says Provancha, the 26-year-old crew with jet-black hair and a pearly smile. “It’s the same on the water. We don’t try to filter anything we say.”

While experts argue their openness is a liability, their success is irrefutable. In four years, Team No-Filter — as they occasionally refer to themselves — rocketed to the top tier of women’s 470 sailing. They’re now legitimate medal contenders, which is not surprising.

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Greg Wilkinson, their beloved coach who groomed them at Boston College, says, “They were both highly competitive right off the bat — extremely driven.”

Haeger, also 26, is the taller of the two by several inches. She’s an ember that softly smolders and then suddenly ­ignites with exuberance once she arrives at a good topic for discussion, whether it’s first learning how to sail the 470 or a recurring dream about losing Provancha as her crew.

I witness this combustion as she ­describes an early experience with the 470. “I had never really sailed with a spinnaker before,” she says casually before lighting up like a giddy teenager, “and I ­remember reaching at what I thought at the time was really fast. I was like, ‘Oh my god! We’re ripping!’ Briana is like, ‘Just wait.’ And I said, ‘Really? We can go faster than this?’”

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Provancha, almost her opposite, ­exudes a stereotypical laid-back Southern ­California attitude, cultivated in San Diego. Her speech even has a slower cadence than Haeger’s.

She describes herself as a “big-­picture person.” Her role, she explains, is to give facts with confidence. “It can be hard when things aren’t going well, but I still have to express what’s going on positively. Part of that is trying to suppress emotions,” she says. They’re competitive to the core, she adds, but there are moments in which they need to temper that tendency and realize there are things they can’t control.

“I will be freaking out and Briana will be like, ‘OK, team inhale,’” says Haeger. “Or she will say ‘positive delta,’ which means that if we’re in 20th, we just need to work on getting to 18th or 15th — anything better than 20th.”

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At the 2016 International 470 Worlds in Argentina, they and everyone else contended with thick carpets of seaweed, dramatic windshifts and frequent storms. They finished sixth but took it in stride — just another building block of the campaign. “There are tons of things that neither Annie nor I can do anything about,” says Provancha. “The only thing we can do then is think, ‘What can I do right now to make the boat go fast?’”

Wilkinson says the pressure cooker of college sailing taught them to perform under duress. “It’s probably the thing I worked most on with them,” he says.

Conventional wisdom among top sailing teams, especially among pairs, is that good friends don’t make good teammates. Haeger and Provancha appear to be the exception. That doesn’t come without deliberate ­effort, however.

haeger/provancha
In the women’s 470, the skipper-crew dynamic is as important as boatspeed. For Briana Provancha and Annie Haeger, the relationship blossomed at Boston College and strengthened on the international sailing scene in 2015. US Sailing Team Sperry/Jen Edney

“We do have to be cautious at certain times because it’s difficult when you have someone who’s your best friend and conflict comes up,” says Haeger. “But it’s nice to know that even if we have a rough day, we’ll just go our separate ways, relax a bit, come back, and we’ll be set to go. That’s because we have such similar goals.”

While the stress they feel when racing is something with which most any competitor can identify to a degree, the Olympic path is fraught with obstacles. “I didn’t realize how much time we’d be spending away from home, how lonely it can get, and how much travel affects relationships with your friends and family,” says Haeger.

Her grandmother turned 80 recently, and there was a huge family gathering. “I was the only grandchild who wasn’t there,” she says. She turns to Provancha. “Where were we, in Denmark?”

“No, Rio,” Provancha replies. Four years on the campaign trail, the blur has arrived.

From her perspective, Provancha says, everything is about balance — friends, ­family, work and personal time. “This is not really a Briana show or an Annie show,” she says. “This is about Briana and Annie and their extended families. Everybody sacrifices. I don’t have a car, so whenever I’m home, someone has to share a car with me. Or I have to share a room with someone. My parents worry about my health, the traveling and the stress of racing. It really is a much bigger team than most people realize.”

Haeger’s roots stretch back to sailing Optimist dinghies on Wisconsin’s Lake Beulah, where she also fell under the spell of Olympian Sally Barkow. “She was always sailing against boys and girls, and she was beating the boys,” says Haeger. “I thought, ‘I want to beat the boys like that.’”

Hall of Famer Buddy Melges also contributed to Haeger’s skill set. “I sailed with him when I was really small, and he did this awesome thing where he was never looking at the pressure immediately around the boat, but was always looking up the lake,” she says. “That way, he knew what was coming down, could anticipate it and plan for the next shift.”

Her regret? Melges once invited her to go duck hunting, an invitation she declined. She kicks herself for it to this day. “If he ­invites me again, I’ll go for sure,” she says.

Provancha started her path in the Sabot. The mere mention of the ubiquitous square boat with leeboards evokes a playful taunt from Haeger. The Opti-Sabot rivalry runs deep between the two.

“Hey, we’re proud of our Sabots,” says Provancha with a laugh. “You have a good boat and you pass it down to your kids. Our family even has ours shrink-wrapped.”

Provancha’s parents divorced just before she entered high school, and as a result, she had a choice of schools: Point Loma or La Hoya. La Hoya was the better school, she says, but Point Loma had the better sailing team.

“I begged and begged my parents to let me go to Point Loma,” she says. “I was crying and was like, ‘I don’t understand.’” They conceded, with one stipulation: “Get one B, and you’re at La Hoya.”

She was named valedictorian of her class, but more importantly, she notes, she got to watch Olympic 470 sailor Graham Biehl, who was sailing with Stuart McNay in his first quad.

“That was when the 470 was still the youth champs boat, and I remember thinking, ‘I can do that,’” she says. “That was the bar, and it definitely made me believe that if I just worked hard and copied and observed, I could do it one day.”

As the two of them rig their 470 at US Sailing’s Olympic training center in ­Miami, the teamwork that has led to their success on the water is immediately apparent. The starboard shroud hangs up in its spreader, preventing the upper part from drawing taut. Haeger steps on the 470’s deck and attempts to pull it through but is ­unsuccessful.

She then politely offers the job to Provancha: “Could you see if you could pull it through?” Success.

While fully cooperative, they can also be somewhat territorial. Haeger once rigged the spinnaker. “I lost my rigging privileges for it,” she says, “and I deserved it. I think I put the twing on backward or something.”

Provancha rushes to her partner’s defense: “It’s not that bad. ­Obviously, Annie can 100 percent rig a ­spinnaker.”

“But you know,” says Haeger, “[splitting up the work] helps in a way because then you don’t have to focus on the other person. It requires a lot of trust, and I think that was the first step. Once we got to trusting each other, it got way, way easier.”

They go about their individual tasks for the day, Provancha replacing a broken spinnaker ratchet block and Haeger wielding a 7-inch ceramic Bowie knife as she rigs a mainsheet bridle. “A Christmas gift from my boyfriend,” she says with a wry smile, slicing off a small piece of whipping twine. Then it’s off to practice, which they view quite differently than they view events. “I’ve never even thought about not getting up for an event,” says Haeger. “I don’t know if I would ever burn out. You should see me playing a board game. I will do ­anything to win.”

Practice is a different story, though. Both women are highly results-­driven, and after practice, there’s no scoresheet on which to evaluate their performance. For Provancha, the most important part of their practice isn’t their debrief; it’s the pre-brief. “I get crazy if there isn’t a plan,” she says. “I death-spiral. Ask Annie. I think if I got a job interview and they asked me what my biggest weakness was, I’d say not knowing the plan, not being clued in. If I come off the water and don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything, I just feel like I wasted a day. That’s the worst feeling ever.”

While Haeger shares Provancha’s perspective with regard to practices, her personal challenges are very different. Before transitioning into doublehanded dinghies, she developed in the solitary confines of the Optimist and Laser Radial.

“When you’re sailing by yourself, you never have to say anything,” says Haeger. “When we first started sailing together, I didn’t even count down to tacks. I would literally scream, ‘Here we go!’”

With Provancha requiring adequate time to come off the trapeze, problems occasionally arose. “I remember one of our first [Olympic-class regattas],” says Provancha. “We were sailing windward-leewards with gate marks, and our coach at the time, Adam Roberts, said the only goal for the event was for Annie to say which gate we were going around loud enough so I could hear her.”

But even that posed problems because Haeger is dyslexic. “Which means I don’t know lefts from rights,” she explains. “So as we’re going into the gate, I’m trying to verbally identify which mark we’re going to round … poor Bri. Finally I yelled, ‘That one!’ I pointed to the mark, but of course Briana couldn’t see where I was pointing.”

They’ve since worked through that challenge, however. Controls on their boats are color-coded. When they’re sailing downwind, approaching a gate mark, with Haeger ­always on one side of the boat and Briana on the other, Haeger will say, “rounding my side” or “rounding your side.” Upwind, it’s “our side” or “the other side,” or “over your shoulder” or “in front of you.”

“It definitely took some time to get that down,” says Provancha, “but it’s no longer really an issue. With stuff like this, you learn to appreciate each other’s quirks.”

Lest she be caught in a situation where she must tell right from left, Haeger carefully writes a small “L” on her left hand with a Sharpie before each sail. “We were joking the other day that she should just get a tattoo,” says Provancha.

And when the curtain finally comes down on the 2016 Olympics?

“I’ll remember the fun times,” says Haeger.

Provancha agrees. “Plus, you learn so much about yourself,” she says. “I look back at the Briana who graduated from college, and I think, ‘Oh my god!’ I feel I can now handle situations better, like I have a better grasp on some things. I think it’s a certain maturity.” For Provancha, post-Olympic plans ­include taking a few months off to ­travel with her boyfriend in Australia, and perhaps getting serious about a job the following spring.

Haeger is looking forward to having her own apartment. “Someplace I can call home and not live out of my suitcase, [which is] a model called the Space Station,” she says. “I’d like to burn it, but it’s already been through hell and back.”

Perhaps if all goes according to script, she’ll have a chance to set it aflame before departing Rio at the end of the summer. A medal would require carry-on only.

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