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U.S. sailors are off to Athens Olympics

While not clear favorites to win, the team is in ‘very good shape’ to push for the podium

U.S. sailors are off to Athens Olympics

While not clear favorites to win, the team is in ‘very good shape’ to push for the podium

When U.S. sailors compete in the summer Olympics in Athens, none will be clear-cut favorites to bring home the gold. But the team has been sharpening its edge racing against Olympians in Europe and should have a good shot at medaling in four or five of the 11 Olympic classes.

“As a whole, we’re really in very good shape,” said Jan Harley, U.S. Olympic Sailing Team publicist, as the team prepared for the Aug. 13 to 29 games.

The 18 U.S. sailors will be among some 400 from more than 50 nations who will race out of the Agios Kosmas Olympic Sailing Centre in Glyfada, a southwest Athens suburb seven miles from downtown and 20 miles from the Olympic Village and main Helliniko Olympic Complex.

The Saronic Gulf will be challenging, with the predominant summer winds light, shifty “Meltemi” breezes blowing offshore out of the northeast from Athens, says Gary Jobson, NBC’s Olympic sailing commentator. The Meltemi can be capricious, turning fierce at times and melting away or giving way to a southeasterly sea breeze at others.

Greek organizers have built a new Olympic marina amid posh seaside villas in Newport-like Glyfada, home to well-to-do Athenians.

“The venue is incredible,” says Harley. “It’s great.”

The 2004 Olympic classes number 11 again this year, with one new one — the Yngling — replacing the Soling Class. Consistent with Olympic goals to open the games to more women, the Yngling — a triple-handed keelboat — gives them another class to sail in.

Olympic sailing now has four women’s classes: Yngling, Europe (single-handed dinghy), Mistral (sailboard), and 470 (double-handed dinghy). The men also compete in four classes: Finn (single-handed dinghy), 470, Mistral, and Star (double-handed keelboat). The remaining three classes are open: 49er (high-performance dinghy), Laser (single-handed dinghy), and Tornado (double-handed multihull).

Jobson includes among his first-tier U.S. medal picks veterans Johnny Lovell and Charlie Ogletree in the Tornado, and Kevin Burnham and Paul Foerster in men’s 470, as well as Olympic rookies Meg Gaillard in the Europe and Mark Mendelblatt in the Laser.

“We have some veteran teams, which is good,” Jobson says. “Veterans historically do pretty well.”

Lovell and Ogletree, sailing in their third Olympics together in the Tornado, turned in a second in the 2004 Tornado Worlds and won Spain’s Princess Sofia Regatta this spring. Burnham and Foerster both are 470 Olympic silver medalists, in 1992 and 2000, respectively. Mendelblatt was runner-up in the May Laser worlds. “I like his chances,” Jobson says.

Gaillard, US Sailing’s 2003 female athlete of the year, took third in the 2000 and 2003 Europe worlds, won 13 of 14 races in the U.S. trials, and finished third in the 2004 Princess Sofia. “She is one tough cookie,” Jobson says. “She is tall and strong and determined.”

In the second tier of prospective medalists, Jobson says America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race skipper Paul Cayard and crew Phil Trinter are drenched in experience and very competitive in the Star. Tim Wadlow and Pete Spaulding are threats in the 49er, with a fifth in the worlds and a fourth in the Hyeres and Spa regattas in Europe. Carol Cronin, Liz Filter and Nancy Haberland also are contenders in the Yngling, after finishing third in the 2004 worlds. However, medals in the 49er and Yngling are “outside shots,” says Jobson.

Good finishes in big fleets against other Olympians are strong indicators of how a sailor will do in the Olympics. However, JJ Isler, who medaled with Pease Glaser in the women’s 470 in 1996, knows as well as anyone that at this level of competition anything can happen. She and Glaser went into the 1996 Olympics with an 11th-place finish in the worlds and took the silver at the Atlanta Olympics. “Across the board, every single one of [the U.S. sailors] can win a medal,” she says.

Jobson notes, too, that the Americans have very strong coaching in Skip Whyte, Gary Bodie and Luther Carpenter. “The hidden engine is our coaching staff, and the curve ball is the weather,” he says.

The British will be the team to beatin Athens, with Ben Ainslee in the Finn, Ian Percy in the Star, and Shirley Robertson in the Yngling.

NBC’s Bravo channel will carry up to 30 minutes of Olympic sailing nightly from Aug. 15 to 29.