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U.S. sailors eye gold at London Olympics

As some 380 sailors from around the world converge on England’s south coast July 29-Aug. 11 for Olympic competition, the United States’ best hope for a gold medal rests with a three-woman team that will be racing in the first-ever Olympic women’s match-racing event in Kiwi Greg Elliott’s 6-meter keelboat design.

The 2012 Olympics will feature a women's match racing event for the first time in the Elliott 6m Class.

The team of Anna Tunnicliffe of Plantation, Fla., Molly Vandemoer of Stanford, Calif., and Debbie Capozzi of Bayport, N.Y., who are ranked first in the world in their class by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF), won back-to-back gold medals in the Elliott 6m in World Cup events this spring and a bronze at the Sail for Gold Regatta in June at Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbor, the 2012 Olympic sailing venue. “Our women’s match-racing team is ranked No. 1 in the world for a reason,” says U.S. Olympic Sailing chairman Dean Brenner. “They have been very, very successful.”

The three, who became close friends as collegiate sailors, pooled their talents for an Olympic run and now are sharply focused on a podium finish in August at Weymouth, whose protected waters are some of the finest for sailing in northern Europe.

Skipper Tunnicliffe, a gold medalist in the Laser Radial at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, raced on Virginia’s Old Dominion University sailing team with Capozzi, also an Olympic veteran who teamed with Sally Barkow and Carrie Howe to finish seventh in the Yngling at the 2008 Games. This is the first Olympics for Vandemoer, a University of Hawaii sailing standout and former assistant coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Weymouth and Portland, 120 miles southwest of London, will host a slightly different lineup of sailing events than the Beijing Games did. The Tornado double-handed catamaran, an Olympic-class boat for more than 30 years, has been retired from Olympic competition, and the Elliott 6m women’s match-racing boat has replaced the Yngling in the 2012 Games. The Elliott, a 6-meter keelboat, carries a 15.9-square-meter mainsail, a 7.7-square-meter headsail and a 28-square-meter spinnaker.

U.S. sailors Anna Tunnicliffe, Debbie Capozzi and Molly Vandermoer are considered potential medalists in the Elliott 6m Class.

“For sure, we’re not ready in all classes to win a medal,” says Kenneth Andreasen, US Sailing’s high-performance director and head coach. “But in many of the classes we are definitely ready. We can win a medal.”
His picks for podium finishes, besides women’s match-racing: the women’s 470, the 49er, the Laser Radial, the Star and the Finn. “I’m really happy with where we are now,” he says. “We have both the knowledge and the speed that we need.”

Here’s the lineup of potential medalists in Weymouth.

• Olympic sailing veteran Zach Railey of Clearwater, Fla., a 2008 silver medalist in the Finn, will be competing for a podium finish at Weymouth after winning the gold at Miami’s Olympic Classes Regatta in January, silver at the Princess Sofia Regatta in March and a fourth at Sail for Gold in June — all World Cup events. “Zach’s had a very successful quadrennium,” Brenner says. “He’s been on the podium many times.” The ISAF ranks Railey sixth in the world in the Finn. He goes head to head with British Olympic champion Ben Ainslie, gold medalist in 2000 in the Laser and again in 2004 and 2008 in the Finn.

• In the women’s 470, Amanda Clark of Shelter Island, N.Y., and Sarah Lihan, of Fort Lauderdale, “have done a phenomenal job” since they teamed up just 15 months ago, Andreasen says. Ranked third internationally in 470 fleet racing, they won silver medals at June’s Sail for Gold and April’s Hyeres Week in France and a fifth at the Miami OCR. “They are very excited, very motivated,” he says. “They are one of the fastest teams in the world right now.”

• In the Laser Radial, Paige Railey — Zach’s sister — is ranked third internationally in fleet racing, winning the bronze in a 102-boat fleet at the ISAF Worlds last December. Working hard with coach Luther Carpenter, Railey is ready for Weymouth, Andreasen says. Her sailing game “is really coming together.” In a cliffhanger, Tunnicliffe edged Railey out for a Laser Radial berth in the 2008 Games and went on to win the gold medal.

• In the 49er Class, Erik Storck of Huntington, N.Y., and Trevor Moore of Naples, Fla., were headed for a bronze medal at the ISAF World Championships in January when a rudder pintle failed, forcing them to retire. Though Moore has been nursing a shoulder injury, the pair took the silver at the Miami OCR in January and are ranked 10th in the World Cup standings. “They are two of the fastest sailors in the world,” Andreasen says. “Nobody’s faster than them.” If they sail to their potential without damaging their boat or suffering injuries “they can do very, very well,” he says. “They have medal potential.”

• In the Star, Mark Mendelblatt and Brian Fatih, both of Miami, won a bronze medal at the ISAF World Championships in January. They are ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in World Cup and Star fleet racing. They are “really good off the line, very fast,” Andreasen says, and should benefit from the smaller number of boats on the starting line at Weymouth than at most international regattas. Mendelblatt has been having teething problems with a new boat and may go back to his old one for the Games, Andreasen says. He thinks they could do better than their bronze performance at the worlds “if they eliminate mistakes.”

Farther down on the tip sheet:
• In the men’s 470, Stu McNay of Boston and Graham Biehl of San Diego finished 13th at the Sail for Gold, the ranking they posted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 470. “They consistently finish in the top 10,” US Sailing communications director Dana Paxton says. “They are solid, hard-working, strong performers.”

• In the Laser, Rob Crane of Darien, Conn., finished 19th at the Sail for Gold Regatta and 14th at the ISAF Worlds, where he won the ninth race and finished a close second in the 10th race on the last day of racing, showing grit and potential.

• In the women’s RS:X (sailboard), Farrah Hall of Annapolis, Md., finished 27th at the Sail for Gold but won silver at the Miami OCR, a breakout performance for her. “Can she do it at the Games?” Paxton asks. “We’ll see.”

• In the men’s RS:X, Bob Willis of Chicago finished 29th at the Sail for Gold and ranked 11th at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. “He’s been finishing in the mid-to-high teens,” Paxton says. “Some races, he’s been in the top 10. He’s putting things together and continuing to improve.”

The run-up to the 2012 Games has been intense. According to US Sailing, Zach Railey spends 200 days a year training and competing on the water and is on a full-time physical fitness program to get him into peak athletic shape for the Games. Under Andreasen’s leadership, the U.S. sailing team trained with Navy SEALs last spring at the U.S. Olympic Committee Training Center in Colorado Springs to boost the sailors’ physical and mental stamina.

“Most sailors going to the Games are fast. They know how to get off the line. They know how to go upwind and downwind,” he says. “After that, a lot of it is nuances. Sailing is very physical now. You have to be in very good shape, and there’s the mental challenge six, seven, eight days into the regatta.”

Four years ago, Andreasen set a goal for the sailing team to be the fittest of the U.S. athletes, so he introduced full-time, year-round physical training, including several days of grueling workouts with the SEALs, Paxton says. At SEAL camp, the sailors were up at dawn running, doing jumping jacks and pushups, “rolling around in the dirt” and performing physically and mentally challenging team-building exercises — for instance, figuring out how to lug a log 1-1/2 miles around a lake. “The SEALs made our sailors as uncomfortable physically as they could,” Paxton says, which helps build the physical and mental stamina they need to survive an Olympic run.

Looking beyond 2012 to the changing landscape of Olympic sailing, men’s and women’s kiteboarding will replace boardsailing at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro; the venerable Star keelboat will be retired; a mixed two-person multihull, the Narca 17, will replace the Star; a women’s high-performance dinghy, the 49erFX, will replace the Elliott; and women’s match racing — new this year — will be dropped.

Brenner says the challenge for future Olympic sailors is to see themselves as Olympic athletes rather than catamaran, dinghy or keelboat sailors. Tunnicliffe started her Olympic career as a Laser Radial sailor and now is an Elliott racer. “At the end of the day,” if your Olympic class is dropped, “if you want to go to the Olympics, you choose a different class,” Brenner says. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.