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American duo not in Rio for the regatta shirts

American duo not in Rio for the regatta shirts

You might be as surprised as I was to discover that only four American crews have won Olympic medals in the men’s 470 since the class was introduced at the 1976 Games in Montreal, Canada. 

Americans have won silver three times – Steve Benjamin & Chris Steinfield in Los Angeles in 1984, Morgan Reeser & Kevin Burnham in Barcelona, Spain in 1992 and Paul Foerster & Robert Merrick in Sydney, Australia in 2000.   

America’s only men’s 470 gold medal came in 2004 when Foerster and Burnham teamed up together for the Games in Athens, Greece. 

Since then the US has not had a so much as a sniff of the podium - Stu McNay & Graham Biehl finished 13th in 2008 in China and 14th in 2012 in England.

That disappointing run of results could be set to change this month in Rio however, when a rejuvenated McNay returns for his third Olympics, this time partnered with sailmaker and ex-Olympic coach, David Hughes.

Hughes and McNay are far from strangers having been main rivals for the US 470 spot at the 2008 Olympics. 

After a lamentable performance by the US sailing team at London 2012 that yielded no medals for the first time in 76 years, Hughes (who had been at the Games as the American 49er coach) and McNay hatched a plan to campaign together for the Rio 2016 Games.

“We've known one another for years as friends and competitors, so pairing up was somewhat natural,” Hughes told me. “All it took was a simple phone call and it was done.”

They first set foot in a 470 together in the Autumn of 2012. Hughes remembers the day well as his trapeze wire broke and he was unceremoniously dumped headfirst into the chilly waters off Rhode Island.

Despite this inauspicious first sail the duo quickly gelled and both recognized they had the makings of a medal winning team on their hands.

In the four years since then they have established themselves as a solid top five team on the international circuit and they go into the Olympic regatta in Brazil with realistic medal hopes. 

Coached by 1992 Olympic silver medallist, Morgan Reeser, along with a string of other top tier results they won the 2015 470 European Championship and were third this year at the Europeans in Spain.

When I asked Hughes to identify their individual strengths and weaknesses he told me that they don’t analyse themselves that way.

“It's less about strengths and weaknesses and more about how we complement one another,” he said. “Stu is a student of the sport and a highly intelligent and considered person. 

“He provides me with a wonderful sounding board on all matters: boats; campaigning; and life in general. 

“I hope I do the same for him because, in the end, we're focused on being each other's best team mate.”

On the water Hughes and McNay split the responsibilities for tactics and boat speed between upwind and downwind.

“On a basic level, the crew manages tactics upwind and the helm does it downwind. Having said that, we don’t make it a hard and fast rule and there’s always cross-over and partnership with both roles.

Hughes believes McNay’s experience at two previous Olympics will be a significant factor in Rio, particularly as Hughes takes on his first Games as a competitor. 

“Olympic experience is always valuable on game day,” he said. “The more you have, then more clear the priorities become."

Even in the short time I spent in the dinghy park with McNay and Hughes it was obvious just how well this pair complement each other’s personality. Both are polite and affable but also exude a tangible aura of quiet confidence in their campaign and their joint abilities.

Without a doubt Hughes’ coaching experience has helped instill a new confidence in McNay who must surely feel a medal is a realistic proposition at this his third Olympic appearance.

“Different partnerships work at different stages of our careers,” Hughes told me. “Sometimes timing is everything. 

“We are always pushing to be medal contenders at the Olympics. We've proven we can medal. We've proven we can win. We're looking to keep that pace when racing begins in Rio.”

“We've both seen the Olympic dance before and we believe a medal is a realistic goal when we put forth our best effort.”

A prominent declaration on the McNay/Hughes campaign website makes clear their ultimate goal for the Olympic regatta.  

“This is not about just going to the Olympics,” it reads. “We already have enough t-shirts.”

[Image: Jesus Renedo/Sailing Energy]


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