olympics, cont’d… so much for the afterglow

olympics, cont’d…

so much for the afterglow

A really insightful perspective on youth, US Sailing, funding, and the Olympics from one of the forgotten elements – parents.

I’d like to keep this post going a bit longer, specifically the comparison between the US Sailing program and Europe. We have an interesting view point in that my son has sailed for both the French national team as well as for US Sailing Team Alphagraphics. We’ve been on the inside of two national programs that don’t have much in common in their approach to international dingy racing.

While an American, I’ve spent the last 35 years as a ex-pat in Africa, the middle East and Europe. For the past 15+ years my family has been based on the south coast of France where my kids did their education up to university, and where my son started sailing at the local club in our village.

The French system is similar to that described by others for the UK. My son raced Optis from the age of 10 up to the limit at 14. Racing is organized by public sailing clubs in most of the coastal towns and villages. In our "league", between Marseille and the Italian border there were 16 clubs where any kid could join for about $200 a year. We can sail here year round.

The club provides boats, instruction, and training. Practice for the Opti team was Saturday and Wednesday afternoons. Every other Sunday there is a regatta at one of the clubs. Average fleet size was 100+ on one line. Additionally, at least twice a season there were "inter-league" regattas where the kids sailed against the other leagues running up toward Geneva and west to Spain. Again fleet sizes were over 100. There was also an international regatta every year on the Med coast.

As the kids progressed and improved their results, they were chosen for the "league team", which was about 25 sailors. These boys and girls then were invited during school vacations to one week special training clinics with several coaches at one of the regional centers. This group also got to participate in national and international regattas, giving the kids their first experience of this type of competition at age 12 or 13 on average.

The best kids at this stage then participated at the European championships as well as the ISAF Opti Worlds. Many have had top 5 finishes.

At 14, the kids who want to continue generally move either to Laser or I-420. Same  type of training and coaching organization, but adapted to the kids schooling requirements. Also, there is a greater opportunity to move into real international competition. At the large national and European I-420 regattas you may have 15+ countries and anywhere from 80 to 140 boats. 

My son went the I-420 route. Emphasis was always on boat speed, tuning, boat speed, spinnaker and boat speed. The better kids again get chosen for extra training time and finally make the national team for the Europeans and the ISAF Worlds. While an American citizen, my son participated once at the Europeans and three times at the I-420 Worlds as part of the French national team. 

The sailing clubs in France are partially funded by the Ministry of Sport. While sailing for France in I-420 the local club provided anew boat about every 18 months. We parents supplied the sails. The club picked up about 20% of the travel costs. The regional government in Toulon, also provided travel money once a year. Altogether, I would guess the parents paid about half of the total support cost for a year with the rest coming from the public purse. Split between two families, it was doable.

After finishing 5th at the I-420 Worlds in 2005, my son Alex headed off to college in the US and sailed for St. Mary’s. Despite his background, he never really got to the top level of college sailing, although he did do a lot of racing. I asked him once why his results weren’t better and he said, while he liked the sailors, and being on the team, he found fleet racing in Club 420s un-interesting. He did like team racing, but was always an alternate, never having done it before in Europe.

So Alex had an average college sailing career. He wasn’t an All-American. However, in the three I-420 Worlds he competed in prior to college, only one American (Mikee Anderson Mitterling, college sailor of the year in 2005) beat him, and that by a only few places. That was at Alex’s first Worlds in 2003. At the other two Worlds he went to, no American was even in the Gold Fleet while he finished twice in the top ten. This included several All-Americans.

So what does this say? I think it says high school and college sailing are a domain apart. They provide excellent competition and a lot of fun, as well as a good understanding of the rules. I sailed at Wisconsin and loved it. But, as preparation for international competition they are not sufficient. I guess that’s not news.


Following college Alex launched an Olympic campaign in the 49er, with Val Smith, also of St. Mary’s.

An Olympic campaign is a full time endeavor. Sourcing equipment, finding and working with a coach, training both on the water and in the gym, travel, and regattas take up most of the year. And,  raising the necessary funding takes up the rest.

It is in the funding that American sailors are at a huge disadvantage with respect to the rest of the world. The US has no Ministry of Sports. No public funding for athletes. Compare that to the rest of the world. The funds supporting the other major teams have been discussed earlier in this thread. This is the environment in which the American kids have to compete.

I have no problem with our system in America. But the result is that any American sailor, from a family of average means, who wants to race at a high level in an Olympic class, must become an entrepreneur. They must create their own mini-enterprise so as to attract the sponsorship necessary to train, travel and compete. And this is far from easy. 

Alex and Val got a second hand boat from the French Team, bought a camping trailer, put the boat on top, and did 5 ISAF World Cup regattas during the summer of 2010. Back to the USA in August, then a cross country trip to train for 2 months in the big air off California prior to the Miami OCR. Friends family and fools contributed about $25K to what the boys had saved to make it happen.

They finished top ten at Miami and 2nd American boat, so were signed on contractually to the US Sailing Team Alphagraphics for the 2011season. Great. We were hopeful that this would lead to more successful fundraising. We needed about $75K for the season to get through the Worlds in Perth, which was the second of the Olympic qualifying regattas for London. (Yes, you had to pay your own way to Perth, Western Australia to have any chance of qualifying for the games.) But, after letters, emails, phone calls and PowerPoints to 50 companies, we never found an anchor sponsor, and US Sailing didn’t show any interest in helping. 

The stress of going from regatta to regatta and not knowing where the next months funding would come from took a toll on both Alex and Val, and certainly took their focus off training. Alex’s French, English, Italian friends and others, racing 49ers in the same regattas, had no such worries. 

Finally, their Olympic campaign ended abruptly in May 2011 with a serious leg injury to Alex at the Delta Lloyd regatta in Medemblik Holland, 10days before the first qualifying regatta at Weymouth. Alex came home, and that was the end of his association with US Sailing Team. Or, I should say, it was the end of US Sailing TeamAlphagraphics’ association with Alex. Not one of the trainers, team leaders or coaches called Alex after his injury and departure. He went from Red Jacket team member to non-person in the time it took to flip the boat. But, more surprising still, the costs for the ambulance, hospital treatment in Holland, and of course 6 months of medical bills and physiotherapy in France was at our own charge.

It seems more than incredible to me that a US sanctioned athlete, who is required, by contract, to travel and compete internationally, is not provided a minimum of health insurance. In France, the kids can’t even start training until they show the results of their physical and present their insurance card.

My opinion of the US Sailing Team is …


The US needs a much deeper pool of young sailors from a wider variety of backgrounds. How to do this? I can no longer say. I live in France. But, the basis needs to be on public clubs, not on Yacht Clubs. Parents of moderate means, need to be able to put their young athletes into a program for a few hundred dollars a year. They need access to simple boats to get started. Yet, over 12 or 14 they need to move to boats where tuning is required to make them competitive. They need a team coach, not individual coaches. They need to compete regularly throughout the year at local and regional regattas. This will be tough obviously north of the40th parallel. (Although perhaps easier in the future as climate change advances).

Next thing, for the real racing program, the clubs should stick to international classes – I-420, Laser, 470, 29er, 49er, 505,etc. where the opportunity for international competition is available. Club 420, Flying Juniors, V-15s have their place, but it shouldn’t be in preparation for international racing. College sailing can do what it wants. But, it should be pretty clear that they aren’t preparing future Olympic champions. Anna Tunnicliff is an exception.

So, let’s assume that in the future we have a larger, diverse group sailors in their teens, who have come up through a new, enlarged program and are ready for international competition. They are in the USA. The competition and main regattas are in Europe. How do you get the two together?

One idea might be a boarding school set up in Europe where say 50kids could do their high school equivalent away from home with real emphasis on the sailing and competition side. My son did his senior year of high school (lycée) at a special school run by the French Ministry of Sport for high level athletes in Antibes. He did well in school and well at the worlds. 

Or, sailing scholarships to European Universities, linked to a local training program. It would be great for our kids, and as well it could turn into an exchange program as many European kids would love to do a year university in the US combined with a college sailing program. Out of the box thinking, but possible.

The short story is that if kids train and compete only in the US as things are currently set up, then their chances for medals in international competitions, including the Olympics, will be slim to zero. 

How do you fund such a program in the age of Paul Ryan budgets? Certainly not through a Ministry of Sport, as is the case in Europe. It will never exist in the US. (It’s going to be harder and harder for European societies to continue funding some of these richer programs.) So, who else has the pockets big enough to sponsor community sailing clubs oriented at building internationally competitive sailors? Again, I don’t know. It’s clear, that if a US city can’t afford police or a fire department, a sailing club is not a priority. 

But, I suspect there are thousands of Americans who might be persuaded to part with a few hundred thousand bucks for a specific program, rather than pay taxes for things they don’t like. I know this exists in various ways today. (Mainly for political campaigns) Maybe it could be applied to high level international sailing as well. Would it take a new loophole in tax law? Big deal. Who would notice? 

A push could be made to get some of the corporate sponsors, or just mega-rich Americans to forgo the AC or Volvo so as to sponsor a regional program. Imagine something like the ICSA regions each being sponsored by some company like IBM or Goldman Sachs! Or maybe the US could start a national LOTO for funding. Look at the British example.

Original thinking required.

The US has hundreds of problems worse that the results of the US Sailing Team (current sponsor name) in London. However, the US sailing community is large, diverse, socially adept, and I would guess, unhappy with the results in Weymouth. And they should be. 

The US sailors have as much talent as any. What they lack is an organization to teach them solid basics at a young age, as well as the more sophisticated techniques that modern performance dingy racing requires as they grow. And all this by the age of 18. They also lack the opportunity to compete against the best in the world, who mainly compete in Europe (even if they come from Down Under or Latin America). 

To have better results internationally in the future, the US will have to solve the conundrum:

  • More athletes coming from diverse backgrounds
  • Lower cost
  • Community clubs based
  • Less reliance on high school and college programs
  • Competent coaches who themselves are trained as coaches
  • More technical boats for 14 and over
  • Longer regatta seasons (not just a summer sport)
  • Regular presence at European competitions
  • Escape from US Sailing control
  • How to fund the above

What are the chances of this happening? Slim to none I’d guess.

Good luck,

Glen Bishop. Thread here.