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What now for the US Olympic Sailing Team?

What now for the US Olympic Sailing Team?

After another lacklustre performance at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games yielded just a single medal for the American sailors, Veteran US sports writer Bernie Wilson assess the prospects for his country's national sailing squad.

It's been a tough eight years for the U.S. Olympic sailing team.

Without Caleb Paine's gutty effort in battling back to win the bronze medal in the Finn class at the Rio Games, it would have been utterly nightmarish.

American sailors are supposed to win Olympic medals. The list is long and distinguished, from Lowell North to Buddy Melges to Mark Reynolds and even Mr. America's Cup himself, Dennis Conner.

At the London Games in 2012, no American climbed the podium, an embarrassing whitewash that hadn't happened since 1936.

U.S. Sailing officials tried to downplay that failure as they built for Rio, maybe too much so. Sometimes it takes getting busted in the chops to improve performance, and some Americans seemed to want to ignore that sad affair and not learn from it. 

There were strong hopes for winning three medals at Rio, and a chance for a few more, depending on how some young sailors responded to the pressure. 

Paine was in the latter group.

Caleb Paine

Caleb Paine

Good thing he came through, or else the only thing the Americans would have had to cheer about was a bunch of Top-10 finishes while watching the Brits, Aussies and Kiwis clean up. Even Croatia outmedaled the U.S. with two, including its first-ever sailing gold.

For perspective, 12 of the 15 U.S. sailors were making their Olympic debuts, including Paine. Many on the team were building for Tokyo in 2020.

That said, should the U.S., backed by an all-star coaching staff, have won more medals?

"Dave Ullman said this, that there are only five people in the sport of sailing who medaled in their first Olympic games,'' Paine said. "If you look at that, and look at the team entering the Olympics, we've done very, very well. We had a chance at four medals at the Olympics. That's sailboat racing. It's a sport you can't predict. It's random, crazy and chaotic, and a lot of things can happen. Yes it would have been nice if we won more. Did we have the ability to win more? Yes, but it didn't happen.''

Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha

Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha

Paine would prefer to look at it as the glass starting to refill after getting knocked over in London.
There could have been one more medal. The women's 470 crew of Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha were in the silver medal position in the women's 470 finale but committed two critical mistakes and finished last, leaving them seventh overall.

There were Top-10 finishes in four other classes.

The men's 470 crew of Stuart McNay and Dave Hughes finished fourth overall after taking second in the medal race. 

The Nacra 17 crew of Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee was fourth in the medal race and eighth overall.

In the women's 49erFX, Paris Henken and Helena Scutt were ninth in the medal race and 10th overall.

In her second Olympics, Paige Railey finished 10th in the Laser Radial medal race and 10th overall. 
Laser skipper Charlie Buckingham just missed getting into the medal race.

So there's hope.

"I would definitely say we're in the process of getting back on track,'' Paine said. "Without the mentality the organization had to support the athletes, it wouldn't have happened at all. The fact of the matter is, we were right in the mix for two medals and Stu and Dave had the possibility to get a third. At that level it's extremely easy to say it's unfortunate we didn't win more medals and point fingers. But you're playing a game of poker at one of the highest levels of the sport.''

Stu McNay and Dave Hughes

Stu McNay and Dave Hughes

How did the United States get to this point, winning just one medal in two Olympics?

"A lot of it is that the foreign programs really responded well to what we did successfully in the '80s and early '90s,'' U.S. Sailing president Bruce Burton said. "In '84, '88, '92, we were the country to beat. The foreign competition really responded well to that and ramped up their programs big-time, with a very professional approach. They got a lot of government funding. They responded to the gauntlet we actually threw down. We haven't been able to respond like they responded to us. They caught us flat-footed. This quad we did a good job of responding. A lot of it was funding. They outfunded us really fast.''

Sure enough, the Americans enjoyed a spectacular run with seven medals (three golds) in 1984, five medals (one gold) at Seoul in 1988 and then a whopping nine medals (one gold) at Barcelona in 1992. Then it started to tail off, with only two bronzes in home waters in 1996 before an uptick to four medals (one gold) at Sydney before the Yanks won just two medals (including one gold each year) at both Athens and Beijing.

In early October, Josh Adams stepped down as managing director of U.S. Olympic Sailing, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family and his family business.

Burton said U.S. Sailing is looking for a leader "who can really continue on what Josh has started. We got back on the podium. That was one of the real big things we had to accomplish this quad, was reverse the trend and get back on the podium.''

[Editor note: After this article was completed US Sailing recently announced that Australian double 470 Olympic gold medallist, Malcolm Page would be taking charge of the US Olympic Sailing Team. Page was previously in charge of media at World Sailing and takes up his post officially on January 1.

Adams' replacement will have to continue to work on the Olympic Development Program and expand the number of sailors participating in the trials.

And then there's money.

The U.S. budget is roughly $16 million, well below what's spent by Britain and Australia.

"We're in a pretty significant disadvantage financially,'' Burton said. "A typical medal costs about $11 million on a corporate scale and we spent about $15 million to $16 million. On an economic basis, we should win one medal, almost two. That's what happened. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do better.''

Burton said U.S. Sailing will continue with various initiatives to help build Olympic sailing.

"We do have to raise more money,'' he said. "We have to appeal to people with the wherewithal to help us. It is a little bit of an arms race. It gets down to economics. We're at an economic disadvantage.''

Caleb Paine

Caleb Paine

Paine can get a head start on soliciting support for his campaign because he has a medal in hand.

The San Diegan likes the team's chances at Tokyo.

"I think we'll see some very strong results,'' he said. "We're a very, very strong, up-and-coming group of sailors. I'm one of the oldest on the team and I'm only 25. It's a strong group of young individuals coming up that could be doing quite well in the near future.''

[Images by Sailing Energy/World Sailing]

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