A Thin Margin for Victory

Aug. 01, 2008, 12:59 p.m. (ET)

In the sport of sailing, local knowledge of the weather and sea conditions has always been deemed an advantage in competition, and prior to the Olympics, athletes have had to travel great distances to gain that knowledge before the starting gun. For the 18-member U.S. Olympic Sailing Team spending 60-days over three years at the satellite Olympic venue in Qingdao has given them that coveted ‘local knowledge.'

That same familiarity with the weather and sea conditions has prompted most of the U.S. Sailing Team to lose up to 20-pounds of their competitive weight, turning the Olympic Team into waif-like competitors. A sailor's weight is such a critical factor in competitive sailing that light air conditions and tidal currents can seriously punish heavier boats and sailors. With an estimated 90-percent chance the breeze will be light during the Olympic Games, sailors decided to shed pounds accordingly.

"Almost the entire U.S. Sailing Team has gotten quite thin," said Zach Railey, 24 of Clearwater, FL who is competing in the Finn Dinghy class. "I now weigh under 200-pounds; well below the normal Finn weight," Railey said. "All of the team members dream about eating steaks and potatoes but we are losing weight to improve our performance on the water."

The Finn has been an Olympic class boat for 50 years and it requires tremendous physical exertion and mental concentration. It is a big man's boat where the average sailor weighs 220-225 pounds.

The Finn Class is composed of 25 competitors and two returning medalists including 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist Ben Ainslie of Great Britain and 2004 Silver Medalist Rafael Trujillo of Spain.

"Out of the 25 competitors, at least 10 to 12 of them are medal contenders," Railey said. "I am quite certain I have done everything I possibly can to be one the contenders."

However prepared the sailors are for a light air venue, Mother Nature can throw in a curve ball from time to time. At press time, Typhoon Fung Wong (Phoenix) had crossed China's south east coast a little less than halfway between Hong Kong and the Olympic venue of Qingdao. The breeze today is as strong as 30 knots, which is the extreme end of where sailors can race.

In 1988, the Olympic Sailing venue in Pusan, Korea was touted as being a light weather venue, in the same way Qingdao has been. As was the case 20 years ago, the typhoons now seem to be making their presence felt, and for the second time in as many weeks fresh winds are being experienced at the Olympic venue.  If this weather trend continues, the slender sailors may need to bulk up.

Laser Radial sailor Anna Tunnicliffe, 24, of Plantation, FL had bucked the weight loss trend and stayed at her competitive weight. She is the number one-ranked female Laser sailor in the world who says she prefers being a solo sailor - alone on the race course making the calls.

"I love being able to make my own decisions. I can't afford to be too light if the wind comes up because the Laser Radial gets quickly overpowered."

"I have a good feeling about my chances," she continued. "I have beaten everyone I am sailing against and I have finished in the top five or six for a few years now. I have the confidence, I know the venue and right now I am just physically and mentally ready."

Sailing is also a sport where time on the water pays off.  For 58-year-old John Dane III of Gulfport, MI that time spans over 40-years when he first tried out for the Olympic team in 1967. Dane will be racing with his son-in-law Austin Sperry, 30, in the two-man Star Class and is the oldest competitor at the Olympics.

"I have certainly gotten a lot of press because of my age and my 40-year pursuit of the Olympic dream.  I do not consider 58 as being old.  In fact, my mother, at 84, keeps asking me when I am going to grow up and I respond "why?"

"I admit, as the oldest, I might be the first to turn off the lights at night, but I consider it a challenge to "keep up" with my younger competitors.  I also let my actions on the water prove I can still compete at this level," Dane said.  "We won the trials and got here today by beating a two-time Star Gold medal winner plus two America's Cup competitors and other great American Star sailors."

Dane and Sperry are top contenders in the Star Class but will be up against Poland's Mateusz Kusznierewicz and Dominik Zycki, and Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada of Brazil.

"Sailing - above all other sports - is one where you need to spend a lot of time at the venue so we are ready for that," said Sarah Mergenthaler, 29, of New York City who is racing in the  470 Dinghy Class with teammate Amanda Clark, 26. "But, before any big race I always have butterflies in my stomach. Everything we are doing in training right now is so we can peak at exactly the right moment and sail the regatta of our lives at the Olympics." 

In the three-person Yngling class,  it is hopeful that the team of  Sally Barkow, 28, Carrie Howe, 27 and Debbie Capozzi, 27, who are ranked second in the class, will peak at that right moment as well. The American women have been trading wins with the 2004 Olympic medalists from Britain at regattas over the past two years and will face them in Qingdao.

For Collegiate All-American Capozzi, preparing for the Olympics means that although the Yngling sailors encounter the same competitors at international competitions, this is the moment when the stakes are highest.

"Our biggest strategy is to stick to what has worked in the past," Capozzi said. "And, most importantly, you have to sail your own race."

Let's hope that the venue the team has prepared for so well serves up the right combination of conditions for them to sail it their way.


Laurie Fullerton is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.