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A Q&A with Jack Gierhart about the new Facility for Advanced Sailing and Technology

by David Schmidt 5 Apr 2018 08:01 PDT April 5, 2018
Caleb Paine - World Cup Series Miami © Jesus Renedo / Sailing Energy

While the United States of America holds the proud distinction of having won more Olympic sailing medals (60) than any other country, the less distinguished truth is that the past two Olympic quadrennials have been a dry spell for the team. The U.S.-flagged sailing team suffered its first Olympic medal ceremony shutout at the London 2012 Olympics, a fate that was almost repeated at the Rio 2016 Olympics before Caleb Paine singlehandedly won a proud bronze medal in the Finn class. Needless to say, this is a departure from the norm for a country that holds 19 gold medals, 23 silver and—thanks to Paine—a total of 18 bronze medals, and who was a true Olympic sailing powerhouse for decades.

Here, the proverbial "why" is a complex response that includes factors ranging widely from the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, to the different levels of government support that U.S. athletes enjoy compared to their competition, to geography, to funding and early access to high-performance equipment and coaching. While some of these challenges, such as the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, would require an act of Congress to overturn, others hurdles, such as access to high-level coaching, equipment and funding are already being tackled.

On Thursday, April 5, 2018 at 0800 hours, news officially broke that US Sailing has opened a brand-new training facility-dubbed the Facility for Advanced Sailing and Technology (FAST USA)-on San Francisco Bay's Treasure Island, in partnership with the St. Francis Yacht Club's (St.FYC) St. Francis Sailing Foundation and the Treasure Island Sailing Center (TISC). FAST USA opens its doors as the primary national training center for the US Sailing team, and it will physically be housed in a container-based structure that was donated to US Sailing by Oracle Racing.

"We have watched the successes that other sports have had in creating a national training center and permanent home for their top athletes, coaches and trainers," said Peter Stoneberg, Chairman of the FAST USA Committee, in an official US Sailing press release. "For the first time in the history of American sailing, FAST USA at TISC will provide this home for the sport. New and Olympic sailors alike will be surrounded by world-class technology companies, universities and life science facilities. When added to the outstanding sail training conditions in San Francisco Bay, we will be mining Olympic gold on Treasure Island."

In addition to mining gold medals and creating a world-class training facility for Olympic-caliber sailors, this partnership will also help to advance TISC's community-sailing objectives. Additionally, the partnership helps to advance St.FYC's long-held "Puddles to Podium" initiative that seeks to create a "seamless pathway" that can carry beginner sailors all the way to the expert level. (For example, TISC and the St. Francis Yacht Club's St. Francis Sailing Foundation have already collaborated to create the successful "Set Sail Learn" program for fourth-graders from San Francisco's public schools.)

As a result, FAST USA will create an atmosphere that welcomes beginners and Olympic hopefuls alike, while also helping to shift the US Sailing team's overall culture, as well as West Coast sailing culture.

The final pieces of the FAST USA equation are the facility's close proximity to California's booming tech industry, world-class universities, and San Francisco's culture of innovation, which US Sailing hopes will help give the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team a technological edge compared to their international rivals.

I interviewed Jack Gierhart, US Sailing's CEO, via email, to learn more about FAST USA and this exciting three-way partnership.

What was the impetus for FAST USA? Also, does this signal a geographic shift for US Sailing

This is not so much a move, but an expansion of our presence and support for the sport.

Last year we went through a strategic planning project and one of the key take-aways coming out of that initiative was the need for US Sailing to get local and engage with local sailing communities.

The other driver is new leadership in our Olympic program, Malcom Page, and his strategy to expand the US Sailing Team's training venues and help cultivate local talent development. US Sailing will maintain the offices in Rhode Island and training facilities in Miami.

San Francisco often gets pegged as a heavy-wind racing area, but the truth is that sailors can often pick and choose their experience based on where and when they sail, giving them the ability to train in (almost) any condition. How important was this when selecting Treasure Island?

The variable conditions, along with the facilities on Treasure Island are perfect in offering access to a variety of conditions: big wind, waves and current; flat water and breeze; and lighter conditions. This provides the sailing team athletes and coaches with a variety of training venues and conditions in which to prep for specific regattas and work on specific skills.

It also offers our [Olympic Development Program] athletes with opportunities to get familiar with new equipment in more controlled conditions and then build up to conditions that really challenge them.

One year from now, what kind of facilities and infrastructure do you imagine US Sailing having on TI? What about in five years?

Within the next year we look forward to having office space for coaches, Sailing Team management and US Sailing regional staff, as well as educational facilities for athletes, and boat storage and maintenance capabilities.

We will be a partner of Treasure Island Community Sailing and working with them and FAST to support their "Puddles to Podium" mission. It is an exciting approach to connecting the grassroots with the top end of the sport and establishing a clear pathway between the two.

Five years is a long way out from today so who knows, but our goal is to develop an impactful presence in the Bay Area and West Coast sailing communities, a world-class training facility and provide local, personal support for the broad range of US Sailing programs and services.

Do you imagine that this facility could eventually host World Cup regattas? If not, could you foresee non-American sailors coming here to compete in Olympic class regattas and training? I ask as I'm wondering if this facility will serve as a magnet that can help bring European/etc. sailors to the USA, giving American sailors international experience on their home waters, a bit like the annual Sailing World Cup Miami regatta?

The goal of all the leaders involved in this exciting initiative is to be able to host the best regattas in the world and provide a welcoming environment for sailors from across the globe to train and compete. World Championships most certainly and other top tier Olympic events.

While Long Beach will host Olympic Sailing in 2028 with great innovation, there is plenty of opportunity for the Bay Area and West Coast to be part of the lead up to, and aftermath of, the [2028] Games. We see this as the spark plug that can lead the revitalization in Olympic Sailing and more broadly, sailing across the board on the West Coast and across the country.

What kind of trickle down do you imagine this will have to local youth sailing (non-Olympic track sailors)?

This has been an initiative driven by the local sailing community–TISC, St Francis Sailing Foundation, and the newly established FAST organization. They have been kind enough to invite us to the table and have shown incredible support for our mission with the Team.

The leaders of these organizations have designed this from the ground up, building on the great work of TISC, adding a focus and pathway for youth to high performance sailing that takes advantage of the incredible resources within the Bay Area, and then leveraging the presence of top American athletes to inspire local kids to be the best they can be.

This initiative is based on the understanding that if we are going to be successful in keeping our sport alive and prospering, and American athletes demonstrating leadership worldwide, we have to connect all elements of sailing and work together.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

We are really excited about this new facility and the opportunities it will provide. We are honoured to be working with the passionate leadership at TISC, St Francis Sailing Foundation and FAST to drive a new, innovative approach to promoting and growing sailing.

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