Improving the Future of US Olympic Sailing

Published on October 1st, 2015

Leandro-Spina-head-shotThe US Olympic Sailing Program began skidding off the road when new campaigners in their 20s were not sufficiently ready, and the team’s modest budget was spent teaching basic skills rather than focusing on the final elements to make champions. To address the situation, Leandro Spina now holds the position of Youth Development Director for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checks in with Leandro for an update…

What is your role responsible for?
The Youth Development Director (YDD) role is to work with all stakeholders in US youth development—sailors, coaches, class organizers, and parents. In my job, I organize training camps for the Olympic Development Program (ODP), lead national teams at world championships, and recruit young sailors who are interested in pursuing an Olympic pathway. I report to Charlie McKee, High Performance Director of the US Sailing Team Sperry.

This is a new role. What have been some of the initiatives of that role?
We are proud of being able to get the US Sailing’s Olympic Development Program (ODP) up and running, guided by Project Pipeline 2024, US Sailing’s new strategic initiative.

In only a few months we have been able to start reaching out to the younger generation (Optimist-age) to educate them and guide them about their next steps and we have already begun to work with the older age group in college and help them take their first steps into high-performance “Olympic Development” and Olympic Classes. This is possible thanks to the collaboration between college coaches, Oakcliff Sailing Center and ODP. It is the first time that College sailing and Olympic sailings have begun to find a balance, and assist each other.

We are working closely with the US youth classes to align our vision and we are working together on a 3-year schedule with plans that will culminate with the 2018 ISAF Youth Worlds, to be held in Corpus Christi, Texas. Having the world’s premier youth sailing event hosted in our country is a huge opportunity to jump-start high-end youth sailing here in the US.

Within these three years, we will also have the 29er and I420 World Championships held in the USA. These two classes are also used in the Youth Worlds, and have been embraced by the ODP due to the significant amount of technical knowledge that kids can gain by training and competing in these boats, and because of their international momentum.

US Sailing is now providing excellent coaching through our ODP Training camps and ODP Travel Teams (more information here). We are exposing our young sailors to Class specific top-level coaching, as well as recruiting technical experts to cover many different skills in an effort to raise the bar for Youth Sailing in high performance classes. We have our top talent training together, and we are shifting quickly towards a training/racing ratio of about 5:1, which has been proven to be successful and necessary.

It is really exciting to see sailors switching to classes that are a better fit for their long term development. Also important is to see many top youth skippers switching to crewing. We haven’t seen so many young crews at such a high level in the USA in a long time. This has been an early priority for the ODP.

Many of our top youth talent is being exposed to our Olympic Program either by being coached (on the water or by general advice) by our Olympic staff coaches and in some cases training with our US Team Sperry Team athletes.

What were some of the highlights this year for the USA youth sailors in the important international events?
US sailors sailed to the podium at the 29er Worlds, Radial Youth Worlds, Radial U21 Europeans, I420 Worlds, Kiel Week and Jr Europeans, RS:X U21 Europeans and RS One Europeans. It was an impressive summer for our talent but it is very important to add that many other US athletes sailed to excellent positions just outside of the top three at those events as well. It has been an excellent year so far for US youth sailing and we are looking forward to closing it out by having a strong team representing USA at the 2015 ISAF Youth Worlds in Malaysia this December.

Are you seeing improvement for USA youth? What is attributing to this improvement?
US youth sailing is healthier than ever. There are today opportunities for every sailor to design their path to the next level, whatever his/her goals may be.

The talent has always been there. These kids are really good! Since we launched the ODP last winter, we have been able to support the sailors at the top end with high level coaching and guidance in the way they organize their sailing. This current crop of sailors is setting a strong example for others to follow, and we are working hard to make the transition to Olympic development boats easier.

Dominant international youth classes such as the 29er and I420 do not have large fleets in the USA. Isn’t there a bit adjustment when going to an international event?
Yes, there is, but is not as important as it seems. We have very talented sailors in USA. Many grow up sailing the Optimist Class with +250 boats. The dynamics and format of racing big fleets is easy to understand for them. But more important than big fleets is to have faster and smarter sailors! With a better level of training and racing at home, while also focusing on quality over quantity, racing in big fleets is not a concern. Also, the numbers of participants in high-performance classes is growing across the board with record numbers in youth sailing in USA.

When young people do not succeed at the important international events, what are the areas that tend to contribute to their ‘under-performance’?
I can tell you what factors contributed to their recent success:
• Embracing a culture of excellence, and working hard to achieve higher standards.
• Our top youth talent needs to work together, pushing each other and share know-how, all working with the help of top-level coaching and sailing specialists.
• Top skippers embracing the challenge to become crews and raising the overall level of our teams and fleets is also very important.

What do you say to a young person who has had success, and is entertaining the idea of an Olympic campaign in the future?
Any sailor who meets that criteria of early success needs to understand first that he or she is already on that Olympic path. Second, the timing is perfect with the new Olympic Development Program in motion. I would tell them to take action and reach out to the ODP to map out your next steps!

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