Sailing on to Beijing
The U.S. Olympic sailing venue made world headlines this past month - primarily because of a pesky algae problem that covered 30-percent of the race course at the satellite Olympic venue in Qingdao, 342-miles southeast of Beijing. However, local fishermen, the Chinese army and teams of volunteers cleared the spreading algae from the race course giving sailors time to re-focus and learn the ebb and flow of the tides of Pusan Bay as they get closer to competing in one of the oldest sports at the Olympic Games.
Sailing has been a part of the Olympic Games for over 100 years, starting in 1896, with the first U.S. entry in 1900. While co-ed teams were never forbidden, it was not until 1988 that women officially joined the competition. The United States won its first medal in 1932 and has recorded 54 medals to date. Its best year was 1984 when the U.S. Olympic sailing team won seven medals in seven events (three gold and four silver) -- the best record of any U.S. team competing at the 1984 Games.
"Having served on the U.S. Olympic Yachting Committee for several years (1977-1984) when the Games were at the peak of their amateur status, I had first-hand knowledge of the intensity with which sailors went at preparing for the regatta. Dennis Conner in 1975 went into the Tempest class with vengeance - a brand new boat for him -- and won a bronze medal," said yachting historian John Rousmaniere. "For years, the keel boats predominated Olympic racing, but when the Tornado catamaran and 470 were introduced in 1976, the balance was reshaped."
Olympic class boats have come and gone over the years and which boats get to remain in the Olympics is a subject of much debate but with new technologies, the boats are generally more lightweight and manned by younger sailors. The 470, the Lasers, the 49er, to name a few, are quick and fast centerboard boats. Additionally, replacement of the old Mistral class of sailboarding, dropped after the 2004 Olympics and replaced by the RS:X with its bigger sail, is also faster. None of the 11 classes represented this year have boats longer than 22 feet, and all types require not only physical strength, but for the double and triple-handed classes - precise teamwork and timing.
"Sailing is a lifestyle sport and you need a lot of skills to make you good," said Dawn Riley, past president of the Women's Sports Foundation and a professional sailor. "Physical talent is important but that is just one aspect of it. The weather conditions are always changing. Whereas a slight puff of wind may not worry you in track and field sports, it can hugely effect you as a sailor, and the track doesn't constantly move and shift.
Sailing is also an equipment sport and at times there is an equipment advantage, something that makes your boat seconds faster. And, sometimes sailors just have a gut feeling, an instinct, that can't be taught."
With better funding and renewed interest in Olympic sailing, support for the sport has taken a 180-degree turn for the better in the past few years, setting the American sailors up for a shot at reaching the podium, according to Dean Brenner, Chairman of the United States Olympic Sailing Committee.
"Olympic sailing in the U.S.A. has become more of a full-time endeavor and the teams are now spending more days on the water; they are fitter and are better students of the game," said Brenner. "We have 14 out of 18 first-time Olympians going to China and we think of our team as the new generation of Olympians."
This year, the U.S. has qualified for all 11-classes as well as three events for the Paralympic Games which begins on Sept. 6.
As the Olympic Games have evolved to include women over the past 20 years, the 2008 Games may be the year when two-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, Sally Barkow, 28, of Waukesha, Wisconsin, will have her shot at the podium in the three-woman Yngling class and will give spectators a chance to witness sailing mastery at its best.
"We are looking at some strong contenders in Qingdao," noted Brenner. "The team of Sally Barkow, Debbie Capozzi and Carrie Howe in the Yngling class has been a very successful team. Anna Tunnicliffe in the Laser Radial class and Tim Wadlow and Chris Rast in the 49ers are all top performers who could do very well."
The US team faces tough competition in every fleet from countries like Brazil, England, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Weather predictions for the upcoming event indicate that it will be a light air battle on the race course and all sailors know it will be tougher going than sailing in a steady breeze.
"Sailing in light weather conditions just turns the game to 90 percent mental and 10 percent strength," said Olympian Carrie Howe. "Sailing is a game of chess. We have to factor in the moving ocean currents and changing wind conditions. We must also consider wind ‘blocks' from other boats as our courses change to reach each mark. We may be sitting inside our Yngling, moving slow and steady but that won't make the race any less exciting. And you never know, a typhoon may come through and it will be ‘hold on to your hats windy'."
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.