No Medals for the USA Olympic Sailing Team?

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Results from the US Olympic Sailing Team were disappointing for 2012. This was the first year in recent memory that no US Olympic sailors brought home a gold, silver or bronze medal.

So what is wrong with the US Olympic Sailing Team this year?

For one thing, we’ve seen a relatively smaller handful of our top junior and collegiate sailors taking on the challenge of an Olympic campaign.  It’s hard to speculate why fewer sailors seem to aspire to make the US Olympic Sailing Team.  Is it the economy that is pushing junior and collegiate sailors away from Olympic campaigns?  Or is it the cost and time commitments required to compete at the top level of most Olympic classes?

Keep in mind, the skill level at Olympic sailing events is phenomenal, even for top championship-caliber sailors.  An Olympic sailing campaign requires absolute dedication to a class for at least 2-3 years, and often requires extended campaigning in Europe, Australia and/or New Zealand.

But the question remains: why are American sailors struggling to reach Olympic gold in 2012?  And what will the Olympic sailing team look like in 2016?

Maybe part of the explanation can be seen in who is winning medals.  Winners in many classes, like the Star and the Finn, are longtime class stalwarts who typically have multiple Olympic campaigns under their belts.  Somewhat like the US “Dream Team” in basketball, it isn’t uncommon to see the same top tier international sailors coming back into classes they’ve sailed in 2-3 consecutive Olympiads.

British Finn sailor Ben Ainslie is a good example.  Ainslie just won his fourth consecutive gold medal in that class; when he’s not sailing Finns, Ben is a full time professional sailor and has shown (once again) that there is an insurmountable talent gap between him and his next closest competitor in this class.

In other classes like the Laser, Laser Radial and Star, longtime class veterans are typically winning most of the medals.  In some cases, countries offer significant levels of financial support for their top sailors, many of whom are considered elite athletes in their home countries.

So, are American Olympic sailors doomed for mediocrity in the future?  It’s too early to tell what US Sailing’s prospects are for 2016, but there is good news.  Many members of the 2012 US Sailing team members are relatively young and may return for another campaign in 2016.  And as super-human as Ben Ainslie has been, the 30-something Ainslie has announced his retirement from the Finn Class (again); in these physically demanding boats, there is certainly an upper age limit on even the best sailor remaining competitive.

And finally, US Sailing has recently increased the attention it is paying to our youngest junior sailors, adding a new junior Olympic development team, and providing top-level coaching at many international junior events.

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As disappointing as the 2012 Olympics is looking for USA sailors, there are a number of top local junior sailors eyeing opportunities for the 2016 Olympic cycle.

Charlie Buckingham and Chris Barnard, both former collegiate sailors of the year, have also both been active in the Laser class in the last 2-3 years.  Charlie was in London coaching another country’s sailing team at this year’s Olympics, while Chris recently won the Laser North American Champs.

Other Olympic prospects could include local sailor Zander Kirkland, who sailed with his brother for the Bermuda team this week.  The Kirklands could return as a real threat in the 49er class, they had a strong second half at the Olympic regatta, including a second place overall in their last race.

Other former junior sailors from our area – Michael Menninger (collegiate dinghy champion at St. Mary’s) and Roger Williams sophomore Tyler MacDonald – have been participating in 49er class races and have the kind of sailing talent it takes to compete at the Olympic level.

Upcoming Sailing Events:

August 6-9 – Junior Sabot National Championships, Alamitos Bay Yacht Club

August 11, Gil Knudsen Series (PHRF)

August 24-26 – Long Point Race Week, BYC/NHYC (PHRF)

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