US Olympic Program: Navigating the now

Published on March 9th, 2023

Rich Jepsen

Issues within the U.S. Olympic Sailing Program became public when Executive Director Paul Cayard resigned amid the announcement of a restructuring effort led by the US Sailing Board of Directors.

Following additional resignations from the team’s high performance leadership group, and commentary by past team leader Dean Brenner, Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck spoke with US Sailing President Rich Jepsen for an update:

Regarding the current situation, how did we get here?

Over the past two years, things have been brought to the surface regarding a variety of operational performance and other issues. And without getting into too many specifics, as doing so, it just wouldn’t be respectful or appropriate, these were issues in a variety of areas. Given that our primary objective is providing the best support and development opportunities for athletes, the issues most concerning were raised by the athletes themselves.

So, to ensure that we are doing our jobs and putting our best foot forward to the development of the athletes, the US Sailing Board of Directors engaged in discussions with Paul Cayard and encouraged certain improvements to be made. When those proved unsuccessful, the board, to best serve the athletes, had no choice but to make some difficult decisions, including making certain changes with respect to the leadership of the team.

Paul has really done a spectacular job in being the face of the franchise, raising money, and had great strategic vision for how to implement Project Pinnacle. But he wasn’t having enough time to spend on raising money with all of his other responsibilities, so after spending months and months on those discussions, off and on, we offered Paul the opportunity to continue to support the team by doing the stuff that he’s best at.

The idea was that while providing valuable input to the direction of the team and sharing the vision of Project Pinnacle, he could focus more on the important fundraising efforts where he’s been more successful than anyone.

However, he declined that opportunity and resigned. We respect his decision and we certainly appreciate all the contributions he’s made in the last couple of years because we’re on a more solid financial footing as a result.

This change, mid-quad, must have been a difficult decision.

It was a choice between bad decisions, for sure, or it was between bad outcomes. What was the least bad outcome? And when it came down to it, it was about the athletes.

Project Pinnacle was the result of a significant study after the 2016 Olympics, bringing in outside consultants to figure out how to build a better path for the USA program. However, now it feels like the plan is getting rebuilt again.

I firmly believe that what we went through over the last two years was not a flawed plan. With input from US Sailing CEO Alan Ostfield, who has 30 years of sports team management and entertainment experience, this was a personnel issue that had to be addressed. And we addressed it like all good executives, which is, make sure the employees are each doing what they’re best at.

But turnover has been a pattern since London 2012. Doesn’t building a strong program begin with continuity?

I agree that continuity matters. Back two years ago, we thought we were signing up for continuity. The board believes in continuity. US Sailing has been undergoing, albeit as slow as you might expect a multi-million-dollar corporation to go, a move from 100 years of a volunteer-led, staff-supported organization to being led by professional staff with volunteer support. The Olympic Program is no exception to that strategic vision.

There’s always a contingent that doesn’t understand why US Sailing is in the Olympic business. Please clarify this issue?

US Sailing was tabbed as the National Governing Body of the sport, which came with several obligations, one of which is Olympic sailing along with governing the sport in all ways. A close reading of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act provides a good sense of what US Sailing’s obligations are there, but they are tied by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the Act inextricably between getting kids into sailing who may be future Olympians and trying to get Olympic athletes on the podium.

Even if we wanted to not be supportive of the Olympics, which in no way is the case, that’s our obligation as the National Governing Body for sailing in the United States. The vast majority of NGBs are structured exactly the same way as US Sailing.

Can US Sailing delegate the administration of the Olympic team to a separate entity?

According to the USOPC, that’s not possible. While it’s a little bit above my legal pay grade, I look at it based on what I understand to be our obligations, and how we have delegated the Olympic Program to a professional staff and that professional staff had a ton of deference and a ton of autonomy.

But as the NGB and true of any for-profit or not-for-profit corporation, the CEO and the Board of Directors has a duty of loyalty to the athletes and to the association to make sure that that delegation isn’t totally complete, and that we have some overarching responsibility to provide oversight and expect accountability.

So, US Sailing is responsible for the Olympic Program, but for everything else under the sun too. How is revenue divided?

The organization is run with due regard to the interests of all our stakeholders. And those stakeholders include the broader athlete population, from Olympic development program to youth programming, and throughout all elements of the sport in the USA.

The organization has obligations to all its members, regardless of how they enjoy the sport. Each of those areas has a budget and a funding model that is respectful of all of the constituents. But for money that donors provide specifically to the Olympic efforts, those funds are only for that use.

However, I’d love to get to a point in our country where everybody saw it as a virtuous cycle and how supporting youth sailing and supporting adult sailing is part and parcel of supporting Olympics, not from a financial standpoint or any sort of zero-sum game – if it’s going to one entity, it’s not going to another – but to realize we’re all part of the same organism.

If Olympic athletes are sufficiently supported and are guided and mentored and coached appropriately, and they do well enough, it creates a message for the rest of the association and all sailing enthusiasts that this is something exciting to be associated with. By growing this interest for the Olympic efforts, it gets to the point where everybody is enthusiastic fans of the Olympic team. hanging on their successes and failures as time goes on, like it works in so many other sports.

It’s an interesting vision that we can grow the sport from the bottom up, which is through grass roots efforts, but also from the top down.

That was previous president Cory Sertl’s vision, and I completely buy into growing the sport from both directions. I’d love for us to have a different way of looking at it so that we see it as this virtuous cycle between all sailors, and not this sort of binary grassroots versus Olympics zero sum game stuff that we have been living with for all the previous decades since the Olympic world changed and professionals were ushered in. That shift changed the world, and US Sailing didn’t pivot. As one of the few developed nations where there isn’t any government support for sailing or for any sport, sailing is not one of the Olympic sports which can be self-sufficient through income from broadcast rights and ticket revenue.

What now for the US Olympic Program?

We’re working on multiple fronts. With Henry Brauer and Sarah Lihan, we put the two best possible interim leaders in place, working as volunteers, but putting in 60 hours a week each. Both of them are extraordinarily smart and extraordinarily well-versed to lead the team while we conduct a search for two really critical positions, one that we hoped to get filled until Paul left, the other, of course, replacement for Paul.

One role is to lead the high-performance side and the other is an Olympic-focused gift officer to work in the development department who is solely focused on raising money for the Olympics. So that’s the near-term plan.

Sarah has been conducting listening sessions and one-on-one conversations with every and any athlete who wishes to participate and has gotten a ton of great feedback and a kind of enthusiasm from a large portion of the athlete community that she’s giving them exactly what they’ve been asking for.

Moving forward, we’re going to take the benefit of what we’ve learned and apply that to the choice of the permanent team leader, and obviously, as well, the gift officer for Olympics. So those are the quick, early steps. Sarah has built out a high-level execution plan on Project Pinnacle, which I found very compelling, and so, in the transition when Sarah and Henry onboard the new team leader, I expect that to go very well.

We are also continually reaching out to stakeholders like yourself, but also donors and athletes and parents of Olympic Development Program athletes and other volunteers in the high-performance community to ensure they understand where we are and to be as respectful and as measured as we possibly can, but still show them that the Olympic team is in good hands.

We’re going to get through what is an extraordinarily difficult situation. We hoped fervently that Paul would see value in the new plan and find excitement and enthusiasm in doing what he was so good at – because people usually do that; they love doing stuff they’re good at – but alas, that wasn’t the case, and Paul left.

Paris 2024 Olympic Sailing Program:
Men’s One Person Dinghy – ILCA 7
Women’s One Person Dinghy – ILCA 6
Mixed Two Person Dinghy – 470
Men’s Skiff – 49er
Women’s Skiff – 49erFx
Men’s Kiteboard – Formula Kite Class
Women’s Kiteboard – Formula Kite Class
Men’s Windsurfing – iQFoil
Women’s Windsurfing – iQFoil
Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17

Venue: Marseille, France
Dates: July 26-August 11


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