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Some thoughts on U.S. Olympic sailing

Some thoughts on U.S. Olympic sailing

Some thoughts on U.S. Olympic sailing

by David Schmidt 13 Mar 11:00 PDT
March 13, 2023

Caleb Paine celebrates bronze in the Finn class at the Rio 2016 Olympic Sailing Competition © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Caveat Emptor: If you’re a fan of US Sailing, and specifically how the organization runs the U.S. Olympic sailing program, you’re best advised to stop reading this editorial.

While crystal balls are in short supply, based on the events of the last two weeks, I’m assuming that the number of eyeballs on this electronic ink hasn’t dropped.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with the facts. Since the 1896 Athens Olympics, American-flagged sailors have collected 61 Olympic sailing medals, including 19 gold medals, 23 silver medals, and 19 bronze medals. This total medal count makes the USA the second-most successful Olympic sailing nation, one position astern of Great Britain, which has won 64 Olympic sailing medals (31 gold medals, 21 silver medals, and 12 bronze medals).

Looking good, right?

Not lately.

The reality is the USA’s last trip to the podium at an Olympic medal ceremony was in 2016, when Finn sailor Caleb Paine earned a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.

Prior to that, historians need to flip back to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Americans Anna Tunnicliffe Tobias earned a proud gold medal in the Laser Radial class, and Zach Railey took home silver in the Finn class.

(N.B., the late, great Nick Scandone and Maureen McKinnon proudly won a gold medal in the SKUD 18 class at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics [theirs is one of the greatest sailing stories I’ve ever had the pleasure and honor of covering as a journalist], and Rick Doerr, Hugh Freund, and Brad Kendell earned a silver medal in the Sonar class at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. While Paralympic sailing has been a national bright spot for Americans, the International Olympic Committee heartlessly dropped sailing from the Paralympic Games starting in 2020, and they recently opted not to reinstate it for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.)

While the American-flagged Olympic team’s dearth of recent medals is old news, and while there have been several attempts at triaging the situation, US Sailing, the sport’s national governing body, has—in my opinion—proved itself to be a hinderance to progress.

The organization has churned through some talented leaders, most recently Paul Cayard, who tendered his resignation as executive director of U.S. Olympic Sailing in late February. While I wrote about this in my last Sail-World editorial, word hit the docks just a few days after that newsletter’s publication that the team’s four senior and highly respected coaches—James Lyne, Leandro Spina, Luther Carpenter, and Charlie McKee (himself a two-time bronze medalist)—also resigned.

Impressively, I’ve heard reports that some (maybe all) of these coaches have continued to support their athletes with on-the-water coaching in Europe, sans any assurance that they will be paid. That’s the level of dedication that these individuals bring to the table.

While there’s plenty of finger-pointing to be done, the buck, of course, must stop with US Sailing. After all, they are the sport’s governing body in the USA.

To the shock of no one, I can report that Olympic sailing is an expensive venture, and one where the U.S. is an odd man out, thanks to the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act. (There’s a lot in this act, so interested readers are encouraged to read the document.)

While other nations’ qualified sailors (and athletes of other disciplines) receive funding from their respective governments, in the USA, most fundraising falls to the sailors themselves. Moreover, the U.S. is legally required to send all athletes who qualify for their event to the Games, irrespective of how competitive that individual is (or isn’t) against an international fleet.

(To be fair, our less-competitive-but-qualified Olympic sailors receive far less, or no, support from US Sailing than those who are competitive.)

In a world where funding dollars are scarce, the American-flagged sailing team effectively finds itself spinning penalty turns while other teams are enjoying solid VMG.

While I can’t blame US Sailing for the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, and while this same act makes it difficult (or impossible) to divorce the U.S. Olympic sailing program from the rest of the organization, I can (and do) blame the organization for rapidly chewing through numerous strong leaders, and for creating the kind of atmosphere that would encourage four of the most talented sailing coaches on the planet to tender their resignations.

This brings us to the pressing question: What’s next?

Here, I can only revert to the facts: The Paris 2024 Olympics are slated to begin on July 26, 2024—that’s just over 16 months from now—and the team’s “leadership” is in shambles.

For their part, US Sailing aims to split the role of executive director of U.S. Olympic Sailing into two positions, one that’s aimed at fundraising, and another that’s aimed at high-performance leadership.

While this sounds good, it also means that the team will have to headhunt and onboard two new leaders, plus new coaches, in short order.

Then there’s the matter of the athletes who have dedicated valuable and irreplaceable years of their lives to pursuing their Olympic dreams, only to see their governing organization get stuck in irons right when they’re needed most. To be fair, I have not interviewed the athletes to learn their thoughts on all of this, so their perspective is admittedly missing from this analysis.

So, what’s the solution? From my perch, it seems that the most obvious path forward is to separate U.S.-flagged Olympic sailing efforts from US Sailing. Given that a full-scale divorce would potentially require legislation (or some form of legal action), and that the road would likely be bumpy (that’s likely putting it mildly), I find myself pondering a middle path.

As I understand the situation, US Sailing has certain legal obligations and mandates that they must fulfill regarding the Olympics. These include (but are not limited to) running the Olympic trials. But—and again, this is based on my understanding—there is nothing preventing a third-party organization or entity from running the athlete training, hiring the right coaches (see above list), and providing the on- and off-the-water support that our athletes need (and deserve) in order to reestablish the U.S. as an Olympic sailing powerhouse.

Granted, this could require some sort of memorandum of understanding or formal agreement with US Sailing (N.B., I am by no means a lawyer, so this, again, is just my analysis), however this third path could offer the most expedient path forward.

While I recognize that every coin has two sides, I also recognize that a single bronze sailing medal win in the Olympics over the span of 15 years is unacceptable for a country with the sailing talent and history that’s harbored within our borders.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt

Sail-World.com North American Editor