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An Interview with Malcolm Page about the 2019 World Cup Series Miami

by David Schmidt 24 Jan 08:00 PST January 27-February 3, 2019
Malcolm Page (AUS) is US Sailing's chief of Olympic sailing and a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012) in the Men's 470 class © Image courtesy of US Sailing

Let’s face it: Team USA hasn’t had a strong Olympic regatta showing since the Beijing Olympics 2008, when Anna Tunnicliffe proudly captured a gold medal in the Laser Radial event and Zach Railey took home a gleaming silver medal in the Finn class. Since then, the team has won a grand total one bronze medal (yes, you read that correctly), which was earned by Caleb Paine in the Finn class during the Rio Olympics 2016. En route to Paine’s medal, the team suffered a complete Olympic medal-ceremony shutout at the London Olympics 2012 (their first since the Berlin Olympics 1936) and also saw several other promising teams fail to perform up to expectation at the Rio Olympics 2016.

This of course would not matter much in countries without a strong sailing heritage (say, Hungary), but this is the United States of America that we’re talking about here, a country that has earned more Olympic sailing medals (60), including more silver (23) and bronze (18) medals, than any other nation and that’s surpassed only by the UK (another sailing powerhouse) for the number of gold medals that it has won over the years (28 vs. 19).

Moreover, if you consider of the America’s Cup (I think we can call that first winning streak “sustained”), offshore racing, high-level Corinthian racing, college racing and passage-setting records, it’s fair to say that us Yankees can sail.

So what the heck is happening with our Olympic team?

The answer to this burning question is complex, but a few smoking guns include geography, fundraising, Olympic dreams versus the necessity of attending college or university, and healthy and functional talent pipelines. There are more factors at play, of course, but the reality is that a fix has proved to be elusive.

I checked in with Malcolm Page (AUS), US Sailing’s chief of Olympic sailing and a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008, 2012) in the Men’s 470 class, via email, ahead of the 2019 World Cup Series Miami (January 27-February 3) to learn more about the U.S.-flagged team’s approach to this important regatta and their preparations for the XXXII Olympiad, which will be held in Tokyo, Japan, from July 24-August 9, 2020.

So we are now just over 19 months out from the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics—can you give us an update on the team’s preparations?

Lately, we have really shifted the way that US Sailing Team (USST) athletes have campaigned previously. In the past, the campaign model has been that the athletes drive and control the way they campaign. This quad, we have flipped the approach by providing each of the classes with expert guidance.

The new approach has also given the athletes every opportunity to work together. We believe that when we work together, the tide will rise quicker for all, and that working as one will produce a reliably strong Team USA from quad to quad.

More specifically, we kicked off the 2019 year with a camp in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC). There, we reflected on 2018 and shifted our focus to this year.

[Next week] is the Hempel World Cup Series Miami. This week all of our athletes, coaches, and Olympic staff came together for another training camp. Here, we have continued to prepare for all of 2019 in addition to the World Cup event.

What kinds of positive advancements and promising developments have you seen from the last year from the team?

Certainly, the average overall results of the team increased in 2018. Which is [a] nice sign, as the second year of the quad is when things really get serious again.

In addition to introducing team-wide programs that incorporate technology in the training process, we’ve had two great advancements when it comes to our training facilities across the country. The US Sailing Center - Miami (the original home of the USST) recently had a makeover.

Meanwhile, last summer, we moved into the Facility for Advanced Sailing and Technology (FAST-USA) on Treasure Island.

We’ve also seen strong development in areas that you can’t measure empirically. As a team, we have developed a much greater sense of unity. The athletes are sharing experiences with one other and the coaches are working together more than in years past.

How much time are U.S. sailors spending training in Japan and learning the venue vs. sailing and competing in big international regattas that are taking place elsewhere? Also, in your mind, what is their better/smarter investment given the time remaining before the next Olympic regatta—area-specific training in Japan or big-fleet, high-caliber international racing?

This is a hard question to answer without going into the specifics of each class and each athlete. Is knowing the venue important? Without a doubt.

The USST has some of the best in the business on our side bringing experience and innovation to the table, ensuring that we have the best knowledge of Enoshima. It is, of course, important to ensure that all our athletes are comfortable with the venue on the water and off the water. Obviously, competing in Japan will mean the athletes will encounter a completely different culture, language, and food, but all our team members have visited Japan, and will many more times again before 2020.

But of course, you can’t win just with local knowledge. You must have great speed, exceptional racing ability, and the ability to deal with the pressure of the Games, as well.

All of these components need to be built now. Attending major events and being measured against your competition helps accomplish that. The most important commodity that we have is time, so planning the development of all these necessary skills with perfect timing is the hardest part.

How important do you see this year’s Hempel World Cup Series Miami in the team’s overall progression to the 2020 Games? Also, would it be a mistake for U.S. fans to read too deeply into the team’s Miami results, one way or another, this far out from the next Olympic regatta?

The event is very early in the 2019 year. So, having good results at this event is not always the best indicator. Having said that, by the end of 2019, you must be a top contender if you want to be ready for delivering a medal in 19 months’ time. So, setting the standard of success does begin at this event.

The athletes are all aware of this, too. They know each measurement point between now and the games matters. Sometimes this will mean getting a certain result, sometimes it will mean using the event to develop a skill that will bring that result in the future. So, this event will mark the movement into the really serious end of the quad.

How would you describe the team’s dynamic after almost two years of your leadership? Has there been a big cultural change? If so, can you explain?

As I mentioned earlier, the culture shift has been great. I think this question would best be answered by our veteran athlete Dave Hughes’s closing remarks about camp at the USOTC, “This team is committed to Olympic success in 2020 and beyond. The energy and support within this team is more than I have ever experienced in my tenure as an athlete. Great things are to come.”

If you had a magic wand and could use it to produce any resource—except additional preparation time—to help the team medal in 2020, what resources would you use it to create? And in reality, how hard are those resources to produce?

We have made some significant strides forward in the last two years, but this could be in jeopardy for the next two unless we can build a better fundraising model.

In recent years, the landscape of Olympic sailing has changed greatly. Some of the countries we compete against have significantly larger budgets that are supplemented by their country lotteries. While we are fortunate to have the support of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the major balance of our funding comes from the philanthropy of the sailing community in the U.S. We are incredibly grateful for our supporters’ generosity. However, the truth is fundraising to the level we need to properly support our program is challenging.

I am confident that our sailors and their coaches represent some of the very best talent in the World, and they certainly have the drive to compete at that level. However, currently, we have to be of the mindset that if we don’t have the money to complete everything, we will focus on the highest priority near-term goals i.e. Tokyo 2020.

With more funding, we could offer more to our athletes such as logistics help in transporting boats and equipment to events, more consistent physio, training, and boat maintenance. Our coaches would benefit from increased resources and of course, our extraordinary Research and Development department could pursue even more projects. Most importantly, our athletes would enjoy the full support they deserve.

Has the team already started to turn its attention on studying the racecourse area in Japan? I know that a lot of effort went into creating a sophisticated tide and current model for Rio—is the same happening for the Enoshima Yacht Harbor?

Yes, and it’s top secret.

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

I know this will sound funny in my Australian accent, but the U.S. is special. The potential in this country is like no other. I find myself saying all the time that it’s “infinite” for a number of reasons. There are so many talented young sailors in this country.

If you need proof, just look at the results from this year’s Youth World Championships. The U.S. won the Nations Trophy hands down. The U.S. also has the majority of the innovative technology companies of the world. Our sport lends itself well to utilizing this for accelerating development.

Money is also a necessary asset for rebuilding and igniting the potential. The U.S. is the largest economy in the world, so the money is here. If our community supports these athletes at the high end of the competitive spectrum, the growth and development of the sport will trickle down to all levels.

We know these USST athletes are very good sailors, but they also are great people that care deeply about our sport. They feel very privileged to be able to represent their country at this level. Even though they approach sailing with an intensity that many sailors don’t identify with, their passion is infectious and it’s evident that they fell in love with the sport the exact same way we all did.

One Country - One Sport - One Vision - One Team.

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