When sailors Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha are together, there is laughter. Like sisters, the two often are on the same wavelength.
So when Provancha recently spoke about Haeger’s athletic ability, it was with a mixture of pride, disbelief and good-natured fun.
“I’m going to brag about Annie for a second,” she said. “She got offered a scholarship to play soccer in college and she turned it down to sail. There’s no scholarships in sailing, so she made her parents pay for her education.”
Provancha laughs as she tells the story of her former Boston College teammate, but then adds a caveat.
“I’m lucky she did,” she says, “because I get to sail with her.”
Together, Haeger and Provancha are among the top 470-class sailing teams in the world in 2015. They have a good chance of earning a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and contending for a medal there.
Haeger is the skipper on the two-person, Olympic-class dinghy that gets its name from its length of 4.70 meters (15.4 feet). Provancha serves as crew on the boat, which is considered one of the most challenging, physical and exciting classes to sail in the Games.
In August, Haeger and Provancha won the year-out test event at Rio de Janiero over the same course to be used during the Games. In June, they finished third at the European Championships. This past week, they warmed up for the world championships in Israel that start this weekend by finishing fourth in Israel’s 470 Open National Championships.
After a slow start this season — due in part to a back injury suffered by Haeger — they go into the world championships with positive momentum they hope they can carry through next year.
“Getting a medal at the Europeans was a really big accomplishment,” Provancha said. “And obviously the test event in Rio was our peak event for the year, so to win was a really great feeling. If you look back at the past results of who did well at the test event before London, I think it was like 70 percent of the people that performed (successfully) there got medals.”
The duo finished seventh in the 2014 world championships after finishing 15th in 2013. Now they believe they could earn a top-three finish in Israel.
“Really a top-five would be fantastic, too,” Provancha said. “But I think a podium is definitely in reach.”
They point out, though, that fortunes can shift quickly in sailing. The competition will stretch over six days. After five days of racing, the field will be culled to the top 10 for a final medal race. Equipment breakdowns and a change in weather or wind can suddenly sink hopes.
“There’s so much that can happen that’s out of your control in our sport,” Provancha said. “You’re on the wrong side of a wind shift or wind puff, and that’s just the card you’re dealt, and that’s tough.”
Haeger, 25, and Provancha, 26, have been sailing since they were kids. Haeger, from East Troy, Wisconsin, began at age 5. Provancha, from San Diego, by 8. They first met at the 2007 youth world championships in Kingston, Ontario, where Provancha won a gold medal in the 29er class and Haeger won a silver in Laser Radial.
They crossed paths again at Boston College, when Haeger arrived when Provancha was a sophomore.
“One of my first days of orientation I was having a hard time transitioning into school, and she actually took me under her wing,” Haeger said. “It was so nice of her.”
They’ve been friends ever since, and Provancha introduced Haeger to the 470 class at Thanksgiving break of Haeger’s sophomore year, when Haeger flew out to San Diego and they sailed a boat together. After leaving Boston College in 2012, they teamed up full time to sail 470s, with a goal of working toward the 2016 Games.
Provancha calls Haeger “one of the best drivers I’ve ever sailed with.” She said they’ve sailed together for so long that their communication is terrific. They know at the same time “what the boat needs,” she said.
“She’s extremely driven and it’s great to be next to somebody who works as hard as she does,” Provancha said.
Haeger refers to Provancha as “literally the best crew on the water.” She says their friendship is a key to their performance.
“We were friends first, so it gave us a common ground when things are a little bit stressful on the boat,” Haeger said.
Sometimes, Provancha said, they see (and hear) the other teams and know they have something good.
“Every time we hear somebody yelling at each other, like teams will yell, you know, it’s like, ‘Thank God,’” she said. “At least the two of us are working together.”
The two have been spending a lot of time in Rio de Janeiro, traveling there at least six times to get familiar with conditions. Then, sailing at the August test event, they learned even more. They sailed on courses both inside and outside Guanabara Bay.
“The outside is very big waves,” Provancha said. “Much windier. The inside is quite shifty, way more current and much lighter breeze.”
In order to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the Games, Haeger and Provancha will have to qualify at a pair of events, one in Argentina in February and another in Mallorca in April. If they can, then they’ll get to put all that local knowledge to work in quest of an Olympic medal.
For Haeger, that’s one reason she turned down a chance to play soccer in college. After winning a silver medal at those youth world championships in 2007, she’s dreamed of winning gold.
“I thought selfishly that the best way for me to do that was to sail,” Haeger said. “And though I love soccer — I will always, always, always love soccer — I thought that I had more natural talent sailing.”
Years later, that decision may pay off in a big way for Haeger and Provancha.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.