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Debriefing the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series Miami with Malcolm Page

by David Schmidt 13 Feb 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

For sailors with Olympic dreams, the annual World Cup Series Miami (nee, the Miami Olympic Class Regatta, or OCR) is one of the most important events as it takes place on U.S. waters and gives sailors of all flags the opportunity to speed test against the world’s fastest sailors. While this regatta unfurls annually, its importance increases proportionately to how close to the next Olympic regatta we are, and-with the next Games set to unfurl in July and August of 2020, the pressure was understandably high at this year’s regatta, making it a great litmus test for U.S.-flagged preparatory efforts.

Fans of U.S. Olympic sailing know that the past decade has not been pretty, with only one bronze medal earned since Anna Tunnicliffe captured the nation’s last gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Worse still, the U.S. squad was completely shut out of the London 2012 Olympic medal ceremony for sailing, which was our worst national showing in sailing since the Berlin 1936 Olympics.

Fortunately, there are now undeniable green shoots appearing, both in the team’s 2020 hopefuls, and in the national talent pipeline. Best yet, our results at the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series Miami indicate that there’s a chance that the Star Spangled Banner will be heard at Olympic sailing medal ceremonies during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

In the Laser Radial fleet, Olympic veteran Paige Railey delivered a stellar performance that landed her on the second highest step of the podium with a shiny new silver medal around her neck. And in the Finn class, Luke Muller sailed a great light-air regatta to take home a bronze medal.

While these results were strong, there were other performances that also warrant mention, namely Stu McNay and Dave Hughes finished in fourth place in the Men’s 470 class, as did Charlie Buckingham in the Laser, while the sisters Brugman (Atlantic and Nora) took eighth place in the Women’s 470 class. In the 49erFX class, Stephanie Roble and Margaret Shea sailed to a ninth-place finish, Erika Reineke finished in sixth place in the Laser Radial class, while Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee earned an eighth-place finish in the mixed-sex Nacra 17 class (N.B., Americans Sarah Newberry and David Liebenberg scored a tenth-place finish).

Still, with almost 18 months on the horizon before the starting guns begin sounding at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, there’s plenty of time for these Top Ten finishers to up their game. Conversely, as the U.S. team saw following the Perth 2011 ISAF Worlds, there’s also a danger of peaking too soon.

I debriefed the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series Miami (January 27-February 3) with Malcolm Page, US Sailing’s chief of Olympic sailing, via email, to learn more about the team’s performance curve ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The dust has now settled on the 2019 World Cup Series Miami—how do you feel the team did?

I certainly know how I feel… absolutely exhausted, but I have a satisfied smirk on my face. The team did wonderfully! To have two medals from the first 2019 World Cup event, to have four boats in the Top Five, and to have seven classes in the Top Ten is proof that the structure that’s being built is the right performance move. [For comparison,] the USA only got two medals in all 2018 World Cup events.

So to summarize, these results have exceeded my expectations, but are far from reaching USA’s full potential, and are indicative of what this team can deliver!

Were there any stand-out performances or any strong finishes that you were not expecting? Any performances that you are particularly proud of?

There are many performances that have made this a great event. Let me summarize by class.

Finn: Young gun Luke Muller. What a performance to win the Bronze medal. Even after completing an extra penalty turn (he only had to complete one, but wasn’t sure so did an extra) in the medal race he fought back to get on the podium.

Laser Radial: Erika Reineke has worked hard after last summer and certainly found her mojo again. Paige Railey hit a par with her performance, and what an amazing Radial team we have working together.

Laser: Charlie Buckingham really stepped up this event and this is his best result in sometime. Also Chris Barnard showed his amazing talent and was in the fight as well.

Women’s 470: The Brugman sisters also brought forward their personal best for this event. It again is proof of their ability. The Women’s 470 squad has some very talented athletes lining up, for example the Cowles sisters, Nikki Barnes and Lara Dallman-Weiss, and Madeleine Rice and Laura Slovensky.

Nacra 17: I’m really impressed with the way our sailors in this class are all working together and growing together. I can see Team USA’s Nacra 17 squad starting to make the rest of the world turn and look at them.

When you look at the other teams that will be at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, how do you feel the U.S.-flagged team currently stacks up, 18 months ahead of the next Games?

We still have a lot of work to do. Although it is a better performance, and it proves we have medal chances, we are far from guaranteeing any medals.

Sport is tough, and we need to continue looking at ourselves and not being distracted from the mission.

Does this view change if you go granular and look at individual U.S. sailors vs. individual sailors from other teams?

In some ways you are always playing this game. Athlete versus athlete. But USA has a general advantage in that it can field many boats in most events, which means we can work together to beat the other countries.

How hard do you think it will be for the U.S. team to medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? And realistically, how many medals do you think we can bring home from this Olympic regatta?

Extremely hard. Winning takes all your time, focus, resources and effort. I would prefer to avoid that how-many-medals question and focus on the process.

We know the amount of time between now and the Games, and we have a good idea on each individual athlete/team’s needs. It is short and everything is temporary in sport, so we must not rest on this performance and keep pushing for more.

Do you think the U.S.-flagged team might be better served to only send a hand-picked selection of sailors (who are serious medal contenders) to Tokyo, rather than sending a sailor in every class for which the country and the individual athlete qualified for? For example, the U.S. was not competitive in the Men’s RS:X class at the Rio Games…would this money and support be better invested in a different sailor? And is this even an option for the U.S. team, or are we compelled by law (the Amateur Sports Act[s] of 1978 and 1998) to send and support all athletes who qualify?

Let me respond in two parts.

Regarding the Tokyo 2020 games. Of course under the Amateur Sports act we must send a representative in each qualified event. I personally think this is good for the country. It takes many years and normally multiple quads to build a medal-winning athlete, so if you don’t send a representative then this can have long-term effects and building that confidence of knowing “you can do it!”

Regarding the team’s ongoing program funding support. This is where we need to be more particular, but this relates back to the funding we have available. If we have limited resources, which is our current situation, we have to be more pointed on the support to ensure the team’s best foot is put forward. This priority list is set by the athlete’s results, not through discretionary process.

So, ideally, we would always support all classes as this is the way to build a champion of the future, but if we have limited resources and try to spread them thinly, you end up with not enough effective coverage.

This is slightly off topic but still germane to the long-term future of high-level sailing: Can you tell us about any steps that you and the team are taking to reduce your environmental footprint as you move towards Tokyo 2020? Maybe a committed reduction to using plastics or chase-boat fuel or even less flying to/from events (read: longer stays in Japan)?

Sailing has two distinct sides to it. We’re out on the water using natural resources to compete… but then we have motorboats and multiple pieces of equipment.

The USST athletes are obviously good sailors, but the really cool thing is that they are great people. They feel fortunate and privileged to represent their country at this level, but also feel obligated to the beautiful environment they play in.

The pre-event cleanup event and Emily Penn education session that took place ahead of the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series Miami has helped each athlete, coach, and staff member involved in the team know what part they can play in this process. Coaches now carry larger water holders (thanks to Yeti) and reusable water bottles. Athletes are conscious of everything they are doing, for example, placing old sailing-glove finger ends and electrical tape in the bin, or recycling old wetsuits to become yoga mats and other ways we can all play our part in this problem.

The USST athletes encourage all the sailing community to think about how they can help from their level.” to “The USST athletes encourage the entire sailing community to think about how they can help from their level

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

I’ve shared how much confidence I have in our sailors- their focus, their dedication, their talent, and that they are all just great people. They care about the sport and appreciate all it has given them and the path they’ve followed to get to where they are.

My wish is for the sailing community, our friends and supporters across the country, to see them and appreciate them the same as our coaches and I do. We truly need the passion and support for the our sailors and our program in so many areas… not least of which is the financial support that will have such a major impact on all we are able to achieve.

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