Thomas Barrows III
RIO DE JANEIRO — They’ve had their shots, have an all-star coaching staff and are probably as acclimated to Brazil’s tricky conditions and foul water as sailors from any other country.
They’ll be using Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain as reference points as they sail just off Rio’s famous party beaches, Copacabana and Flamengo.
As prepared as the U.S. Olympic sailing team might be, the great unknown is whether it can return to the medals podium after an embarrassing shutout on the English Channel in 2012.
The U.S. has won 59 Olympic sailing medals, the most of any nation, although its 19 gold medals trail Britain’s 26. Among the American medalists are some of the biggest names in sailing: Lowell North, Dennis Conner, Buddy Melges and Mark Reynolds.
In 2012, the American team failed to medal for the first time since the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“We moved on a long time ago,” said Josh Adams, who took over as managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing right after the London flop.
The American sailors with the best chances of medaling in Rio are the women’s 470 crew of Annie Haeger of East Troy, Wisconsin, and Briana Provancha of San Diego; the men’s 470 crew of Stuart McNay of Providence, Rhode Island, and David Hughes of Miami; and Laser Radial sailor Paige Railey of Clearwater, Florida.
St. Thomas’ Thomas Barrows III will be competing with Annapolis’ Joe Morris in the 49er class and are considered long shots to medal.
Others might break through. But it’s a young team and many sailors are working toward 2020.
Still, Adams wanted to give the squad a fighting chance after London. He set up a training base at a secure yacht club in Niteroi across Guanabara Bay from Rio so sailors could spend as much time as possible there, acclimating to both the unpredictable conditions and the poor quality of the water, which is fouled with sewage and trash.
He also hired two-time Olympic medalist Charlie McKee as high performance director.
McKee in turn added big-time coaches to those already in place.
Among them is Reynolds, the most successful U.S. Olympic sailor with two golds and a silver, who coaches Laser sailor Charlie Buckingham of Newport Beach, California, an Olympic first-timer. Dave Ullman, a National Sailing Hall of Fame inductee and former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, is coaching Haeger-Provancha. Former Olympic medalist Morgan Reeser is coaching McNay-Hughes. McKee’s brother, Jonathan, a two-time Olympic medalist, is coaching the Nacra 17 catamaran crew of Bora Gulari of Detroit and Louisa Chafee of Warwick, Rhode Island.
Luther Carpenter is coaching Finn sailor Caleb Paine of San Diego. Carpenter has helped four American teams win medals in three different types of boats in six consecutive Olympics. The team technical adviser is Dave Dellenbaugh, who was tactician and starting helmsman for the winning crew in the 1992 America’s Cup.
“It’s an all-star squad, no doubt,” Paine said. “When you get that much wisdom, you’re learning something every time you have dinner with them and hanging out. Everything they spit out is valuable.”
That was the point, Charlie McKee said.
“We recognized that one of the things that we can do to help the athletes try to perform well is surround them with a staff that has a lot of experience in the Olympic arena,” he said. “Obviously, we’re super gratified and happy and confident that that part is in really good hands. We have a great history of Olympic sailing in the U.S. and we’ve gotten a lot of those people to want to come back and help this current team.”
Paine, who beat 2008 silver medalist Zach Railey for the Olympic berth, said he’s spent more than 200 days training in Rio. Haeger and Provancha have made 15 trips.
“We feel good about the time and resources invested in Rio,” Adams said. “It’s a complicated place to learn. We feel the team has done the right things to prepare.”
After that, it comes down to performance.
Haeger and Provancha won the test event in Rio a year ago. Although relatively new to the 470, they’ve been teammates since 2008 and sailed together while at Boston College. Earlier this year, Haeger was named U.S. Sailing Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year.
While their top rivals are Olympic veterans, Haeger and Provancha are Games rookies. “With that said, we have the skill set, coaching and mental capacity,” Haeger said. “There’s no reason to aim for silver when gold is in our grasp. Our goal is very much black and white. Our goal is to win the gold medal.”
McNay and Hughes have medaled regularly during the last two years, including consecutive golds in 2015 at the World Cup and the prestigious European Championships. They got the bronze at this year’s Europeans.
“Is that a guarantee of a medal at the Olympics? For sure not. But it does mean we’re on the right path, absolutely,” Hughes said.