Helping the next generation of sailors

Published on March 8th, 2018

JJ Fetter is giving back. The two-time women’s 470 Olympic medalist took a turn on the US Sailing Board of Directors and is on the US Olympic Sailing Committee. She is also working with the St Francis Sailing Foundation which raises and grants money to deserving sailors and organizations that promote sailing, racing competition, and maritime education.

Here JJ comments on how to help the next generation of sailors succeed:

What kind of youth programming do you think should be available?
We need to be careful in programs that try to do a one-size-fits-all approach. There will be the kids who want to go the high-performance route, those who will want to do the adventure sailing route, others who want to sail the round-robin tactical kind of boats, and kids who want to be the next Charlie Enright and go around the world.

We need to make sure the kids are exposed to all those aspects of our sport and are building the skills at age-appropriate stages so that they can go wherever they want – kiteboard, cruising, racing, whatever. I embrace the fact that our sport has all these different avenues.

Additionally, an important challenge for the future of our sport will be to expand and include a more diverse population. One important solution is to increase access through community sailing programs. St Francis Sailing Foundation is taking a leadership role here by supporting programs at the Treasure Island Sailing Center in San Francisco, like “Set, Sail, Learn”.

Last year, the program introduced sailing to over 1,500 fourth-graders from the public school system. A large percentage of the kids are Hispanic, and many come back for the two-week summer course. The Foundation is providing scholarships to 80% of those kids.

Do you think it is more complicated today for kids to put their “everything” into the sport?
Kids are getting pulled in so many different directions and an Olympic campaign, for example, has become such a full-time professional endeavor in a way that it wasn’t back in my day. And I’ve seen that at every stage.

When I was sailing varsity in college and recall the amount we practiced, the kids in my yacht club junior program now practice as many times a week as we did, and college kids are putting in as many hours a week on the water and training in the gym as I did for my first Olympic campaign!

Everything is just ramped up exponentially. I think the Olympic path – and I know I am biased – is so rewarding. There is truly nothing like competing against the top sailors in the world at a regatta where all competitors are at the peak of that sport.

When you are on that starting line at the Olympics, every competitor knows what the other has sacrificed for that goal. The respect that you have for your competitors, the respect they have for you and putting it all on the line in a regatta where there’s no “do-over”, it’s an amazing experience. And, it’s so cool to know that right now, half of our US Sailing Team squad is female!

Where should the focus be to improve US sailing success at the highest level?
Living in Southern California, I am super excited that LA is going to host the 2028 Olympics – Long Beach is a great place to sail. When the Olympics were here in 1984, the US won silver or gold in every event and to me, that is the goal we should be working toward – thinking about what we can do to get the US back on the podium in every class by then.

A well-integrated training center is important to that end. A key part of developing Olympic sailors is to keep inspiring the kids and exposing younger sailors to cool, fun high-performance boats and let them experience how fun it is to sail a planing dinghy or trapeze on a 29er or Nacra, and to try windsurfing.

As the late, great Bob Billingham would say, “Plant a lot of little seeds” to see which sailors are willing to put in the work and have the passion to develop their skills.

We also need our sailors to put more time in on the water but for that to happen, we need to give the sailors the resources they deserve as professional sailors. Everyone needs to get out their check books and support Olympic sailing, support their local campaigners and regional programs that are supporting Olympic sailors and US Sailing’s Olympic program!

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