Stua McNay and Dave Hughes race in the 470 class at the Sailing World Cup Miami 2016 on Jan. 30, 2016 in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Sailors Stu McNay and Dave Hughes had just finished the 2012 Olympic Games in London — McNay as an athlete and Hughes as a coach — when they knew they had a chance to do big things in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but only if they became a team.
The onetime competitors now head to Rio as one of the United States’ strongest chances for a medal in sailing.
“We are ready to put out an excellence performance,” said McNay, 34, of Boston. “We continue to focus on the process — recognizing that we have what it takes, but also capturing the learning, open mind daily to always strive to be our best, which is slightly better than the previous day. We will stay true to that process.”Both men knew each other well before they joined forces racing in the two-man 470 class. In addition to racing with each other in other boats on larger teams, they were each other’s primary competition for Team USA’s 2008 Olympic berth in the 470 class. McNay and teammate Graham Biehl would edge Hughes’ boat with Michael Anderson-Mitterling for the coveted spot.
McNay and Biehl returned to the Games racing in the 470 class in 2012, and Hughes went as a coach in the 49er class, another two-person boat. Team USA returned home from London without a medal in sailing, however, and out of that disappointment Hughes and McNay hatched their plan for a different result in Rio.
“After the 2012 Games, we both realized that we still had a great deal of competitive fire left in our tanks,” said Hughes, 38, of Miami, who also went to the Olympic Games as a training partner in 2004. “Our Olympic journeys were not meant to be over. We first sailed together in the fall of 2012 and have been a team ever since.”
Immediately, the partnership felt like a new lease on their Olympic lives, Hughes said. The chemistry and communication between the two were strong right away.
“Most importantly, we shared a similar vision of how to get to the top of our discipline,” McNay said.
The new team soon established itself as Team USA’s top boat in the class. Their accomplishments now include six world cup medals, including three wins, a European championship title, a North American championship title, a European championship bronze medal and a South American championship title on the Rio Olympic course.
Experience helped, McNay said, as did their shared vision of their path and potential pitfalls and their work with coach Morgan Reeser. They share enough in common that they work well together and believe in the process they’ve agreed upon, he added, but there are differences between the two that also help make them the ultimate team.
“Dave has a tireless work ethic and also excitement about optimizing our boat,” McNay said. “I spend a little more time on personal well-being, mental and physical. We have been able to learn from each other and round out our game from this balance because the boat and ourselves both must be fine tuned to a world-class level.
“We both approach the sport in a cerebral way, but also harness our intuition. It's been useful to develop this highly personal balance as team and with each other's guidance and reflections.”
No team is without its challenges, of course, and McNay said although one of their strengths is their cohesion, he and Hughes have had to work to find the life-work balance with which many elite athletes struggle. Discovering the perfect ratio of training, racing and off time is the holy grail for any athlete, Hughes said, and with a two-person team that calibration is doubly critical.
In a sport such as sailing, where the playing field is constantly in flux, teammates must be completely aligned with one another on many levels.
“Sailing rewards athletes who perform as one,” Hughes said. “Competing in synch with your partner throughout all physical moves is the baseline. However, mentally synching with your partner creates the real standout performances. There is something seamless and smooth that happens when all is done right. It’s clarity in focus and a complete ‘same page’ execution.”
As the Olympic Opening Ceremony draws nearer, McNay and Hughes are spending most of their time on the water in Rio getting to know the venue as best they can. Being considered the United States’ top hope for a sailing medal is, on one level, a wonderful position to be in, Hughes said, but it’s not something that’s on his mind.
“What is on my mind is being the best teammate to Stu as possible while striving to deliver my best personal performance,” Hughes said. “In doing those things, I know we will get the most from each other and that result will be rewarded with an Olympic medal.