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U.S. shutout leaves team eyeing 2016 Olympics

Outgoing Olympic sailing chairman Dean Brenner says a detailed post-mortem of the U.S. team's zero-medal performance in London will identify shortcomings in the Olympic sailing program, but the team's first skunk since the 1936 Berlin Games, though disappointing, does not mean that what's in place now should be scrapped.

U.S. sailors Anna Tunnicliffe, Dabbie Capozzi and Molly Vandemoer were considered potential medalists but came up short in the Elliott 6m class, finishing fifth in women's match racing.

"This is a really hard time," says Brenner, Olympic sailing's two-term chairman, speaking with Soundings a day after returning from London. "We did not expect to come home with zero medals. That was not part of the program."

The U.S. team was shut out in 30 chances to medal in 10 events sailed July 29-Aug. 11 in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbor.
Brenner says the U.S. sailors should be proud to have competed in the Olympics — no mean feat — but the team's performance was "not acceptable. "We are better than the way we were there," he says. "Definitely some things need to be changed.

"[But] anyone who says the program is hopelessly broken and needs to start over from scratch doesn't know what they're talking about. We had a terrible two weeks."

The team's most promising young sailors, Anna Tunnicliffe, Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi, who were ranked first in the world before the Olympics, finished a disappointing fifth in women's match racing. Mark Mendelblatt and Brian Fatih posted a seventh in the Star Class after winning a bronze in January at the International Sailing Federation world championships. Paige Railey, who was ranked third internationally in the Laser Radial before the Games, took eighth. Women's 470 sailors Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan, who won silver in April at France's Hyere's Week, came in ninth. And the results went downhill from there.
Brenner says there is no common denominator in the team's failure to perform to its potential. He says four or five of the U.S. sailors were capable of medaling, but didn't. Without specifying athletes or classes, he says that in one class the starts were inconsistent. In another, the American seemed to sail well in some wind conditions, but not in others. In yet another class the sailor wouldn't let go of one starting strategy, even though it clearly was flawed and wasn't working.
In some cases, competitors did not seem to have trained enough; in others, they trained too much. They peaked early. Some sailors weren't rested enough; others rested too much. They were sluggish. "In some classes, they just lost," Brenner says. "This is sailing. I've gone to lots of regattas where my teammates and I were ready, and we didn't win."

The best sailors in the world — 380 of them — competed for 30 medals. The competition was fierce and it gets fiercer every year as more countries take up the Olympic sport with a laser-like focus. Limited to two terms, Brenner stepped aside Sept. 1 and Josh Adams becomes managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing — a new full-time position that assumes most of the duties of the part-time chairman post — for the next quadrennium, culminating in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Adams will be charged with shaping the team for those Games.

Brenner says U.S. Olympic sailing is less than halfway into a building program that started in 2005-08, when its annual budget quadrupled from $1 million to $4 million. From 2009 to 2012, the goal was to change the team culture — collaborate more by training in mutually supportive "pods" of sailors and coaches, and stress physical fitness as Olympic-class boats become increasingly athletic. From 2013 to 2016, the focus will be on improving the talent pipeline.

"We want to make our youth development pipeline better," Brenner says. "It has to be better. We have to have a really good program for kids at the tip of the youth pyramid. That's going to be a big initiative for the coming quadrennium." He says that will ensure U.S. Olympic sailing's future will be a competitive one.
Most of the United States' Olympic sailors are full-time athletes now, an improvement from past Olympics. They had plenty of opportunities to race against the best in international competition, Brenner says. They had plenty of opportunity to train at Weymouth before the games. Though an Olympic team never has enough money to do everything it wants to do, "we've had a lot more support than we used to have," Brenner says. "We need more money. We're fighting an uphill battle there, but the vast majority of our team would say they had enough money. That wasn't the problem."

Brenner says he expects to see a lot of the faces that competed in London on the U.S. sailing team in Rio. "But if you want to go for 2016 you will have to take a really hard look at what you have to do because the status quo isn't OK."

Australia's sailors mined the most gold in London: three first-place medals and one silver. They were followed by Spain with two gold medals; Great Britain with one gold and four silver; and the Netherlands with a gold, a silver and a bronze.

Australia's sailing team came up blank at the 2004 Games in Athens. That country turned its program around by focusing on a few of its very best sailors and entering just eight of the 10 2012 Olympic sailing events. The United States is still the top medal producer in sailing with 59 since sailing became an Olympic event in 1900.

U.S. Olympic sailing results
- Women's match racing: Anna Tunnicliffe, Molly Vandemoer and Debbie Capozzi, 5th
- Star: Mark Mendelblatt and Brian Fatih, 7th
- Women's Laser Radial: Paige Railey, 8th
- Women's 470: Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan, 9th
- Finn: Zach Railey, 12th
- Men's 470: Stuart McNay and Graham Biehl, 14th
- 49er: Eric Storck and Trevor Moore, 15th
- Women's RS:X (boardsailing): Farrah Hall, 20th
- Men's RS:X: Bob Willis, 22nd
- Men's Laser: Rob Crane, 29th

October 2012 issue