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Reluctant leader shines during Olympics

Connecticut’s Dean Brenner shares the ups and downs of being team leader of the U.S. sailing team

Connecticut’s Dean Brenner shares the ups and downs of being team leader of the U.S. sailing team

Tears of joy and sadness — Dean Brenner saw it all as team leader and chairman for the U.S. Olympic sailing team during the 2008 games held on QingdaoBay in China.

Brenner, 35, admits sailing was never the main sport he was interested in while growing up in Watch Hill, R.I. The boating bug finally caught him when he was 19 — after he lost a bet.

“My mom exposed me to it when I was 7 or 8, but I hated it. It didn’t click with me. I think I was a little scared,” says Brenner, who now lives in Wallingford, Conn. “Years later, I was working at a day camp, and I lost a bet to my boss, who was also my friend. The deal was I had to go sailing in this local regatta, which I didn’t want to do, but he basically pulled rank on me and so I had to go.”

Brenner remembers leaving his house, complaining to his mother how awful it was going to be. By the time he came back, he was hooked.

“She asked me if it went as badly as I thought, and I told her it was unbelievable,” says Brenner. “From there, I began sailing the local regattas on a Watch Hill 15, and started doing pretty well.”

After four years, a friend of his suggested he begin to think outside the box for other competitive sailing opportunities. Ever the go-getter, Brenner joined America’s Cup champion Ed Baird as crew along with Tom Burnham (the three, with Baird as the skipper, were on the Young America team’s bid for the America’s Cup) in a campaign for the 2000 Olympic sailing team in the Soling class. The team finished second in the Olympic trials, narrowly missing their opportunity.

“That was a very painful time for me,” says Brenner. “I still deal with that loss. But I thought if I couldn’t go back to compete in the Olympics, I could go and at least support our athletes.”

Brenner says his opportunity came for him when Katie Kelly, who was originally going to be the team leader, discovered she would be expecting her first child and asked Brenner to take the lead for her.

“I was already chairman, and it was a wonderful circumstance that led me to do this job,” says Brenner. “My first reaction when I attended the opening ceremony is that I finally got here, even if it was not the way I originally intended. It has always been my life plan to get here.”

Brenner recalls that as he entered the stadium, he was struck by the thousands of people screaming and yelling when they came in.

“I probably autographed about 25 shirts that night, which was so touching and surprising,” says Brenner. “There were 91,000 people, and I remember when the 600 of us athletes from the USA came in seeing this one man with an American flag waving it around wildly, with the tears just streaming down his face.”

But Brenner says probably the most memorable moment was making eye contact with President George W. Bush in his private box as the sailing team walked in.

“We had met him and his family prior to the ceremony, but I remember catching his eye, and him giving me a thumbs-up,” says Brenner. “No matter what your political affiliation is, it’s still an acknowledgement from the office. It was just a magical point in the evening.”

Brenner says his role as chairman and team leader was challenging because he was constantly bouncing between looking at the big picture and focusing on the present.

“As team leader, you have to be with these athletes in the moment,” says Brenner. “I can be a pretty emotional guy, and I had to learn how to be rising and falling with them on their journey. You have to care about these people and want them to achieve their goals.”

However, as chairman, Brenner always had in the back of his head how the U.S. could improve for the 2012 Olympics.

“I came back from Beijing proud of our team and what we accomplished, but I also knew we had a long way to go,” says Brenner. “I was not satisfied. I think we can do better.”

Brenner says he hopes to ramp up funding for Olympic sailing training. He says the U.S. spent $10 million, whereas Britain, which took home six medals from the sailing division, spent $57 million.

“That’s a huge financial advantage they have, and that’s not going to disappear soon,” says Brenner. “It’s the equivalent of having the Minnesota Twins playing against the New York Yankees. But we have to find ways to outmaneuver them despite our disadvantage.”

Brenner says he is extremely proud of Zach Railey for winning his first medal — the silver in the Finn class — and for Anna Tunnicliffe, whose dramatic come-from-behind victory in the final Laser Radial race earned her the gold medal.

“[Zach] worked hard for this, and earned it. No one gave it to him,” Brenner says in his blog from Qingdao. “He made it happen, and I have no doubt that this is not the last time he will stand on the podium at this event. I cried tears of joy today, and I am doing so again right now. Zach lived what so many of us dream about.”

Brenner says he made it a point to walk each and every one of his athletes down to the boat ramp in the morning, to prep them for the day and soothe their anxieties. However, on Aug. 18, the day Tunnicliffe won the gold, Brenner admits he was more nervous than she was. He describes the day of her race in his blog, and how he struggled to find something inspiring to say to her.

“I’m trying to own my little slice of this moment and say something that she will remember and I’ll be proud to have said. And then … nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’ve got nothing to say,” he states. “Anna senses all of this, I’m sure, and she does what the great ones do. She grabs the moment and takes control with a huge smile on her face. ‘Hey, Dean, are you nervous?’ ”

Brenner laughs softly at the remembrance of this during a phone interview. He remembers her telling him she would take care of it, and she did.

“Anna is the real thing. She is an elite athlete,” says Brenner. “I was roommates with her coach, Luther Carpenter, during our stay, so I got to see a lot of her, more than some of the other athletes, and, watching her, I am not at all surprised at her success. I am elated for her.”

As for whether Brenner will take on both hats — team leader and chairman — for the next roundup, he is unsure at this point.

“It was such an emotional rollercoaster, because you had to ride the highs and the lows. You owed it to the athletes. Some came back happy, some didn’t,” says Brenner. “You would be celebrating one moment, and then five minutes later deal with intense disappointment. It was challenging to celebrate and mourn.”

Brenner says he owes much of his support to his wife, Emily, who he spoke to often while in Beijing and who encouraged him to go in the first place.

“We knew it would be hard on us, but she knew this was always my dream,” says Brenner. “I do intend to keep my place as chairman for the 2012 games and work on improving the program.”

For more on Brenner’s thoughts and experiences during the games, visit his blog at