USA shines at big test for Tokyo 2020

Published on November 25th, 2019

Ever since the US Sailing Team failed to win an Olympic medal at the 2012 Games, it has been about how to rebuild the machine. While the machine had been sputtering for some time, there’s nothing like complete failure to prompt debate and action.

As the world raised its level of execution, the USA had failed to keep pace. It was easy to say how it was an issue of a smaller budget, but the task was bigger than that. The task was how to better spend the money.

The model of turning an elite school sailor into an elite Olympic sailor no longer worked. When it did work, it was because youth sailors had been better prepared with key performance knowledge, but after decades of a youth calendar with a narrow focus on simpler age-based boats, the skill toolbox lacked adequate equipment to take the next step.

So the US Sailing Team, with its meager funds, would use them to teach sailing, and when the best of the athletes would qualify for the Olympics and fail to reach the podium, they too often would not push on for another quad to seek better results.

This is what’s happened with half the events after the Rio 2016 Olympics, and the process of starting over again for Tokyo 2020 meant for a bleak outlook. However, three of these events – 49er, 49erFX, and Nacra 17 – might have more hope than expected.

With the countdown on for their 2019 World Championships (December 3-8), the opening day of their pre-worlds, the Oceania Championships (November 25-27), has the USA at the top of the three fleets. Lisa Ratcliff files this report from Auckland, New Zealand:


In the 49erFX fleet, Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (USA) posted an ominous low score, thanks to two wins and a third, to lead the fleet and Rio 2016 gold medallists Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze of Brazil by 7 points.

Reigning European and world champions Annemiek Bekkering and Annette Duetz (NED) are two points off second after three races on Waitemata Harbour.

“It was 10-15 knots and as the day went on the current started building from the north, and that made it choppy and tricky all-round,” said Roble. “We really focused on good start execution, keeping eyes forward looking at what pressure was coming down the course and trying to sail big lanes upwind, to let it rip and get to the pressure. We are excited about how we sailed.”

The talented FX duo spent a couple of weeks learning the course areas at the beginning of the month and the first day of the Oceanias (November 26) was also their first day back on the water after that intensive training block.

“When we were last here we learned a good bit about the current and just tried to spend time getting familiar with the race courses. I think it’s a pretty unique venue with all the land, so it’s hard to make ‘rules’ for different courses,” Roble admitted.

Many of the teams competing at the warmup Oceania Championship and then the World Championship not only have to concentrate on reining in the best sailors in the world, some have to beat up on their mates to be selected for Tokyo 2020.

Athletes need world-class training partners to become Olympic medal contenders, but cruelly there is only one country spot available for each class of boat.

The US switched from having a single Olympic trial regatta to using a range of world championships and pre-Olympic events for selection, and Auckland is the first of a critical two-event series.

“This is the start of our trials, a two-event series made up of these worlds and the next at Geelong in February. The team with the lowest points will go to the Games,” Roble added. When asked about the pressure of internal qualification she commented: “We’ve just been focusing on our own processes and getting better each day, and each event. It’s a world championship and we are here to win.”

For the USA’s men’s 49er teams, the world championship is particularly important as the Olympic country qualifier, as well as being part of the U.S Olympic trials.

Leading the 49er fleet three races into the three-day Oceania Championship is Andrew Mollerus and Ian MacDiarmid (USA) and second on the Nacra 17 scoresheet is another USA team, Riley Gibbs and Anna Weis.

Details: Men’s 49erWomen’s 49erFXMixed Nacra 17

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