Youth sailing pathway has potholes

Published on May 17th, 2023

by Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt Sailing News
I love a good irony. Youth sailing in the USA has done well in age-based events, often finishing as a leading nation at the Youth Sailing World Championships, considered the gateway for Olympic success. Yet the US Olympic Sailing Program is hardly competitive.

Not to oversimplify, but the pathway has potholes.

When High School competition expanded across the nation in the 1980s, it became the gateway to college. Kids no longer explored in the sport, but rather focused on the institutional types of boats sailed at the university level. Two-time Olympic medalist Charlie McKee saw kids “learning more and more about less and less.”

But the top performers got into elite colleges their schoolwork alone may not have, so the possibility of payoff was the lure. All good… except for the irony, as this pathway separated kids from the other possibilities in the sport. When done with school, they lacked a familiarity with how to stay in the sport, nor did they accrue technical skills needed for the Olympics.

And if these high achievers did have Olympic aspirations, pursuing them after graduation was too late, but engagement during school was not realistic either. After 43 years as a coach at Tufts University, Ken Legler offers this observation:

“To excel in college sailing, you have to maintain a keen focus on academics and a keen focus on the finer points of college sailing at the same time. It’s consuming. Nevertheless, our people are at the top, academically, and it’s amazing what a high level of tactics and boathandling college sailors achieve—but that does not get them any closer to a medal.

“For a medal, you have to sail Olympic-class boats, and not many people can afford that, either the money or the time. To be a fall and spring All-American and an Olympic campaigner is almost impossible.”

It is no coincidence the last Olympic medal won by the USA was from Caleb Paine, as he did not participate in school sailing but rather focused on what he really wanted. He did not come from wealth, yet atop the Rio 2016 podium, it was the end of his second campaign, and he was 25 years of age.

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