In case you haven't noticed, US Sailing, the national governing body of the sport, is gearing up for prime time. This preparation is a quadrennial ritual leading up to the Olympics, when sailing gets noticed by the mainstream and only medals count. To that end, US Sailing is tasked to develop and select athletes for the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events in 2012 who can match high expectations that were set in the past when U.S. sailors were Olympic medal machines that produced 21 out of 24 possible podium finishes between 1984 and 1992.
Lately, however, they have fallen behind with "only" 10 medals since 1996, so US Sailing felt it had to rejigger its approach by taking cues from the Brits, who count on sailing medals like they count on afternoon tea. They, too, went through lean years, but turned it around in spectacular fashion by fusing government, private and corporate support to develop top-shelf talent for their national squads. It's not the "what," but the "how" that's so impressive. Still, the results speak volumes: 16 medals in the last three Olympics and countless top finishes at world championships and other major regattas.
But, perhaps unwittingly, US Sailing's new approach also takes a page from a time when Russians were Soviets and the great Jochen Schümann was a "state amateur," which was politburo-speak for professional athletes behind the Iron Curtain. More on that later.
Starting from scratch
"After the 2004 Games in Athens, where we won two medals, it became clear that we were seeing a downward trend," explains Dean Brenner, US Sailing's Olympic sailing committee chairman and a former Olympic campaigner in the Soling. "We took a long and hard look and came to the conclusion that the system was broken. So we blew up the old model and started from scratch."
The new US Sailing brass includes Brenner; executive director Charles Leighton, a former commodore of New York Yacht Club and prolific fundraiser; and Gary Jobson, one of the most recognizable U.S. sailors, as president.
To improve the Olympic outlook, they had to create something that tickled sailors and sponsors alike.
"The Olympic sailing program's primary mission is to field a team of athletes most capable of achieving success at the Olympic Games," Brenner says. "We were lucky because we had a large number of sailors who were new to the team and bought into our vision."
No stone was left unturned. They recalibrated the fundraising strategy, trimmed budgets, rewarded performance and slaughtered the holy cow of the domestic trials.
But first the money: In recent years, the budget increased by 350 percent to $4.5 million in 2009. The U.S. Olympic Committee used to supply 80 percent, but that share is down to 40 percent now, even though the dollar amount is higher. Other revenue streams include individual donations, corporate sponsorship and support from yacht clubs.
"We delayed corporate sponsorship, because we were not ready for long-term commitments," Brenner says. On the distribution side, they switched from a sprinkler system where everybody "got $1,000 and a pat on the back," as Laser sailor Clayton Johnson, a member of the development team, put it, to a fire hose that is trained on those who produce top results.
Fewer distractions, better results
"Now we get much better funding and US Sailing pays for the coaches and helps with boat transport, which takes a huge burden off our shoulders," Johnson explains.
With less pressure on fundraising, fewer obstacles and distractions, sailors can better concentrate on racing. Now team members fly to the big events in Europe, prepare their boats (which are already there as US Sailing maintains storage sites in Holland and the U.K.), practice together, share housing and logistics, do measurements and registration, and sit down with their coaches for the prerace briefings.
"There has also been a shift towards more team unity and solidarity," 470 sailors Amanda Clark and Sarah Chin said in an e-mail. "It used to be that each boat had their own program, own coach, own agenda, training schedule. Now we present a more unified front with the goal of synergy."
To an old-timer who kicked around on the international circuit back when Europe was divided, some of this has a familiar ring to me. Focus, unity, preparedness, good equipment, support staff and top results is what you could expect from Soviet and East German teams whenever they attended important regattas in the West with their elite sailors and political commissars who kept a close watch on them. As a shoestring campaigner, I didn't care for the claptrap of Communism, but I did notice how successful they were. While I don't see commissars on today's U.S. team or coaches pouring vodka for their team's rivals at cocktail parties, as the Soviets sometimes did, the team-focused approach represents a shift from the individualistic and loosey-goosey approach of the golden era of U.S. Olympic sailing. Gone are the days of 1982, when U.S. Finn world champion Cam Lewis did a 505 practice race in Kiel with a crew of two girls.
The business of change
"US Sailing looked at Great Britain and other successful programs that support the best," says Andrew Campbell, one of the Olympic hopefuls in the Star class, who represented the U.S. in the Laser at the 2008 Games. "We used to have a more democratic system, but now not everybody gets the same funding. It is performance-oriented."
Team unity, he says, is not ordained from the top, but a strategy to help each other improve. Running his Star campaign, Campbell says, is like running a business. His funding is split between US Sailing and other sponsors.
"I could not be successful with US Sailing's support alone," he says, "so I have to do some fundraising of my own." The Star is the most expensive Olympic class that requires an annual budget in the neighborhood of $250,000 for a full-time campaign with two boats and frequent trips abroad.
Which brings up the latest change: Consulting with the USOC, US Sailing did away with the formerly sacrosanct Olympic trials, which used to simulate an Olympic regatta with purely domestic participation to find the best candidate. It once worked well, but as Olympic sailing has become a defacto professional sport, fewer U.S. sailors are among the world's best in their class. So US Sailing determined that the combined results of the 2011 Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta in the UK and the International Sailing Federation's Sailing World Championships in Perth, Australia will be used. (The exception is the Women's Match Racing event, which will have two separate qualifying regattas - one in Miami in Oct. 2011 and one in Weymouth, England in spring 2012 - open only to U.S. athletes.)
This resembles the systems of other nations, but also introduces some uncertainties, which is part of competing in foreign waters against sailors who may or may not be part of their country's Olympic selection.
But Brenner remains adamant: "The Olympic sailing council concluded, and I think correctly, that we strengthen our team across the board by choosing our 2012 team based on international competition. The medals at the Games are given out by how you do against the best in the world, so if that system is the best for the Games, then we think it is best for our trials."
Will the U.S. Sailing team return to former glory? Judging by the results in this year's largest international regattas, the arrow is pointing upwards. But the measure of success here is the medal table of the 2012 Olympic Games.
"The results will have to come in Weymouth," Campbell says.
If they do, it will be nice for the athletes and the fans and it would prove that by deconstructing the old, US Sailing is better prepared for the new - and a starring role in the quadrennial main event.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.