Raising the level for US Olympic Sailing

Published on February 4th, 2020

Bruce Burton

Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checks in with Bruce Burton, former US Sailing President and current Chairman of the US Olympic Sailing Committee:

What’s your Olympic background?

I had campaigns in 1980 and 1984 in the Flying Dutchman, and while we did not get to the games, it was a dynamic era for the class. We had a brilliant group of US sailors working together, we developed a blistering fast boat that was built by Mark Lindsay, and the ultimate result was the gold medal won in 1984 by Jonathan McKee and Carl Buchan.

Was there some sting in personally falling short of your goal?

Maybe initially, but it proved to one of the best experiences of my life. Even though we didn’t achieve our goal, the subsidiary and ancillary benefits were massive. The idea of working hard for something, and having the discipline to push forward, the strategic by-product was that you really learned how to put together a plan and execute it. After 1984, I started my own company and grew it up to 425 employees, which was a lot easier than actually sailing the Flying Dutchman.

So sailing made you smarter?

When you have your own Olympic campaign, you have to be a salesman, which is raising the money. Your product is how you conduct your campaign and your performance. You have to convince your customers to support you as you’re building your business. It’s just like building your own company. It’s a fantastic experience.

And now you’re giving back.

I was president of US Sailing, and when Cory Sertl took over in 2018, she asked me to be the Chair of the Olympic Sailing Committee, and so I’ve been doing it this quad. It’s been really satisfying working with some great people on the committee. It’s really especially nice to work with J.J. Fetter, who’s the Vice-Chairman and two-time Olympian and four-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. She’s fantastic. And then Brian Keane is the Chairman of the Olympic Resource Board, which is the fundraising. So the three of us really have our work cut out for us, but it’s really been very satisfying.

The performance of the US Team leading into Tokyo 2020 has been mixed.

If you look at our pipeline of youth coming up, the USA is in a very strong position, but the Olympic side of the equation has been more challenging. We had a few athletes retire which we would have loved to have return. A couple people got injured, and that negatively impacted us. So when you add it all up, it’s been challenging in that regard.

We also don’t have the level of corporate sponsorship that we have had before. There’s been a changing industry dynamic in that regard, and so it’s been more difficult to find commercial sponsors. So we’ve certainly had money pressures. But I will say this that I’ve never, since I’ve been up there, seen the volunteers come together like they have, especially on the fundraising side.

Brian Keane has just done an absolutely fantastic job on creating a system for volunteer fundraising that we’ve never had before. And that’s one of the key things that we have to get right going into this quad is we’ve got to get our money– we’ve got to get enough money to get some athlete retention here. One of the biggest problems we have is athlete retention.

My understanding is the program funding fell quite short of the budget plan.

Yes, it certainly did. We wanted to put a stake in the ground and try to get it up there with Australia and New Zealand and getting towards England which has something like 50 million. The other ones are in the 20s. And we wanted to break that 20, hopefully get more.

The cool thing was we had some of our first million-dollar donors, and so that was great. We just don’t have enough of them. We put together a plan, and some of the people that we expected to help us have helped us, but some of the people we hoped would help didn’t help. But we’re really thankful for the partners we do have. What Kilroy has done, and the effort on the West Coast has been fantastic.

Hunt Lawrence stepped up and bought a fleet of boats. So those don’t go on our funding balance sheet, so there’s been resources that have been put on the program that although we can say we didn’t reach our fundraising goal, money that we never expected went directly to athletes and to other parts of the program. So yes, in terms of the big goal for us, we missed it, but there were some really good other benefits that came in.

What can you share about the United States Sailing Foundation and how recent changes can make an impact for the program?

Bill Ruh is now chair of the foundation, and he has come on board with aspirations to raise the fundraising bar much higher. He’s got some very ambitious goals that he wants to see reached by 2028, similar to what we were trying to get this quad, but he’s mapped a plan to get there. This will be massive for the program which looks at the Los Angeles Olympics as our time to shine.

What the view for the program beyond 2020?

We’re having a very big strategic planning meeting at the Sailing Leadership Forum. The Olympic Sailing Committee and the US Sailing Board are working together, and we have brought in outside resources as part of 2024 and 2028 planning.

That is a big carrot, 2028 in Los Angeles. What would you say to someone who was on the fence about the Olympic sailing?

This is not about just getting on the podium and winning a medal. It’s a process. You don’t even think about the medal, in my opinion, and that’s the problem with all of us. I was thinking about going to the Olympics. That was always my goal. Well, that really shouldn’t be the goal. Its how do I get better today? When you develop that process of improvement, the rest of your life after Olympic sailing will take care of itself.

So I would say get into the journey, get into the journey of excellence. That’s really what it’s all about, whether it’s in Olympic sailing or running your business or relationships in your life. It’s that journey of excellence. That’s what you have to embrace. Put your heart and soul into that journey of excellence and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be difficult, but enjoy the ride.

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