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A Lifetime In Sailing, With Some Star Cameos, Led Luke Muller To First Olympic Berth

By Karen Price | Aug. 12, 2020, 2:13 p.m. (ET)

Luke Muller will represent Team USA in men's Finn at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021. 


Athletes the world over dream of one day getting a phone call saying they’re going to the Olympic Games. In the case of sailor Luke Muller, the person delivering the news was every bit as emotional as he was hearing it.

During a break from training last month, Muller was with his girlfriend, aware that officials at US Sailing were having a meeting at the time, but not sure if it was “the” meeting.

Then the phone rang.

It was his older sister, Meredith Muller Brody, who also happens to be the Olympic director of US Sailing.

“She called me crying and I was just like, ‘Really? Really? ’and she’s like, ‘Yes! Yes!’” said Muller, 24, who sails in the Finn class. “Then we had a bit of a cry and she pulled herself together and read what she officially had to say, which was, ‘I’m proud to announce you’ve been selected to the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team and nominated to Team USA to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.”

In a way, Muller’s whole life has been leading up to the point where he would have the chance to compete on such an enormous world stage.

His parents met in Philadelphia and learned to sail Hobie Cats and windsurf at the Jersey Shore. They continued the pastime in Texas and then moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, where they started a family. By the time Muller came along in 1996 his parents were friends with other couples who windsurfed, and one of their good friends just happened to be five-time Olympic windsurfer Mike Gebhardt, who lived nearby.

Gebhardt is still the last U.S. man to claim an Olympic medal in windsurfing, having won silver in 1992, and when he competed for the fourth time at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, Muller was there.

“Obviously I don’t remember any of it,” he said. “I was an infant, but (my parents) dragged me along.”

What he does remember is riding his bike to Gebhardt’s house as a kid and having the multiple medal winner climb a tree, crack a coconut and give him fresh coconut milk.

He also remembers seeing how hard his parents ’friend trained.

“The most impactful thing that happened to me with Mike was that he coached an Israeli athlete, (2004 Olympic gold medalist) Gal Fridman, before 2004, and they’d train day in and day out,” Muller said. “I’d watch them while I sat there making sandcastles on the beach and I saw the work they put in and was like, ‘Oh, that’s what it takes.’”

By that time Meredith and older brother Philip, who became a national champion windsurfer, had started a high school sailing team and Luke had joined in the family sport himself.

He started racing in the Optimist class for a couple of years, he said, but initially wasn’t that serious about it.

“I did like getting better at it, but I wasn’t good at racing,” he said. “I would practice extra, more than most kids, just because I wanted to get better, but I was really bad at competitions. Then I had a chance to go to Belgium and that’s when I figured out that I could travel, compete and meet a bunch of like-minded kids, and that’s when I fell in love with international competition. Then I got very competitive and more excited about competing, and I got very single-minded and focused in high school.”

By then he was sailing the Laser, and doing so around kids whose resumes included national championships and world junior championships, he said. By then he knew he wanted to make sailing his life, or at least his future.

Heading into college Muller was best known for being the youngest sailor to win the U.S. championship in Laser in 2013. However, as he got older, Muller outgrew the Laser and just before starting his freshman year at Stanford switched to the Finn class, or one-person heavyweight dinghy. Again he found himself putting in lots of extra hours trying to learn the new boat and get into the physical shape the Finn requires.

“Like rugby players, we have to produce a lot of power and we have to be really cardiovascularly fit,” he said. “You have to be explosive, so you have to be really well-rounded. We do everything from long bike rides to rowing machine workouts to Olympic lifting to functional body building and CrossFit-style workouts. And we have something called the hiking bench that has the same geometry as the boat, so you lie out on the floor and experience the pain. Things like wall sits and biking are often good substitutes for the leg pain you feel during a race.”

After being offered the opportunity to train with 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Caleb Paine and coach Luther Carpenter, he took a leave of absence from Stanford.

In July, Muller edged Paine for the spot on the 2021 team based on the results of the first two qualifying events, the 2019 world championship and 2020 Miami World Cup. Muller held the top spot in both events, and after the third event was postponed and US Sailing determined it was not in their athletes ’best interest to attend, Muller was awarded the slot.

Training and living with Paine leading up to Rio “catapulted” him to a new level of knowledge and experience, Muller said, just seeing how he prepared and acted and what the process was like psychologically and logistically preparing for an Olympic run. From his early exposure to Gebhardt to Paine to now, Muller said, he takes different attributes from different people.

“In regards to sailing now in the present moment, I look up to how the Dutch guys sail downwind and how the guy from New Zealand sails upwind in heavy air,” he said. “I like the British guy and how he stays composed when he’s behind in a race and how he can chip away. I try to learn from their abilities and incorporate them into my own sailing.”

There’s a long list of things that Muller loves about sailing, he said. You have to be adaptable to deal with ever-changing conditions, you have to be technically skilled, and you have to be knowledgable enough to pick up on changes in conditions so you don’t get left behind. He also loves the danger component, when he’s pushing the limits and feeling that moment of bliss even while knowing the boat can flip or something can break at any second.

Mostly, sailing just leaves him feeling fulfilled.

“I was lucky enough to grow up by the ocean and I love being outside,” he said. “I’m really at peace on and in the water, and there are some sailing conditions, when there are massive waves and it’s really windy, that I feel like a kid. I’m working, getting better, faster, more fit, and I feel like I just played at a playground for hours.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Luke Muller