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An interview with Malcolm Page about the state of U.S. Olympic sailing

by David Schmidt 1 May 08:00 PDT May 1, 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

If you follow U.S. Olympic sailing, you’re well familiar with the fact that the last two Olympic quadrenniums have not been kind to American sailing interests. The London Olympics 2012 were the team’s first Olympic medal-ceremony shutout since the Berlin Olympics 1936, and the Rio Olympics 2016 saw the team sail home with a single (albeit hard-fought) bronze medal. Not exactly the kind of performances that the country-or the world-is used to from the nation that’s won more Olympic sailing hardware than any other (60 medals), and which has earned the second highest number of gold medals (19), astern only of Great Britain’s enviable haul of 28 gold medals.

The team took significant corrective measures following the London and Rio Games, including naming Malcolm Page (AUS), a two-time gold medalist in the Men’s 470 class (2008 and 2012), as US Sailing’s chief of Olympic sailing in late 2016. Additionally, the team made significant changes to its Olympic selection process, unveiling a three-tier system (read: early selection, middle selection and late selection), as well as to its coaching staff and culture.

To date, the results have been positive. For example, at the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series Miami (January 27-February 2), Laser Radial sailor Paige Railey threw down a dominant performance to claim silver, while Finn sailor Luke Muller raced a great light-air regatta to take home a bronze medal. Stepping outside of the top three, the team also saw solid results in the Men’s 470 class, full-rig Lasers, the Women’s 470 class, the Nacra 17, and the 49er FX.

And, at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia Iberostar (March 29-April 6), which was contested on the waters off of Palma de Majorca, Spain, Chris Barnard claimed a proud win in the Men’s Laser, signifying his first major win on the international stage (but, to be fair, Barnard is a three-time Laser North American Champion and no stranger to high-level competition). Additionally, U.S. interests were also well-represented in Spain in the Laser Radial, the Laser (Charlie Buckingham) and the Men’s RS:X classes.

While there’s no denying the green shoots of a long-awaited spring, the next series of challenges for sailors seeking to represent the USA at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 involve qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, a process that could begin for some sailors as early as the end of the HWCS Enoshima regatta (late August).

I checked in with Page, via email, as part of an ongoing series of interviews to learn more about the team’s progress towards the Tokyo Olympics 2020 (July 24-August 9).

Can you give us an update on the team’s progress en route to Tokyo?

The 50th Trofeo S.A.R. Princesa Sofia Iberostar was the second of two selection events for the 2019 Olympic Test Event. This has now secured the schedule for all athletes through 2019 and of course then cements their calendar right through to the end of Olympic athlete selection, which will be the 2020 Class World Championships.

Are you pleased with the team’s current evolution and rate of growth and acceleration, relative to their international competition?

Overall the team has improved. Two medals at the Hempel World Cup Series Miami and then three medals in Palma was a great sign.

The U.S. was the second-most decorated country at that latter event (tied with New Zealand). Compare this to last year, when the U.S. only won five medals from all World Cup and major international events in all of 2018. So things are definitely going in the right direction.

Of course, you can deep dive into each class and this is where you may see some room for improvement.

A year ago, did you think the team would be winning gold in the Laser event at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia Iberostar? Also, do you see this as a harbinger of the return of the days of strong American presence in the Laser class?

Phew… thank goodness for both of our Laser and Radial teams! They performed incredibly well. The Laser is regarded as the hardest and most competitive class, so to predict this and or put your money where your mouth is, is a high-risk situation. But I am not surprised. These athletes are super-talented and have really focused after the 2018 season review.

I think this is just a sign of the work they have completed and a sign of the potential of our U.S. athletes.

This potential is across all events, sure some are further away than others, but I still feel like we’ve come so far and there’s so much more we can do for these athletes. Being the number-one sailing country at the Olympics by LA 2028 is a very realistic goal. I’m starting to feel the momentum from the athletes, and this is a result of the momentum the U.S. sailing community is doing for high-performance sailing.

Looking ahead, what are the most important regattas for the team over the next six months? Also, how far along do you see the team’s preparations for these challenges?

The next six months can be broken into two or three different sections depending on your class.

Europe – 2019 Europe season is short and is almost over. This will finish for many of the athletes in May with their class European Championships.

Pan American Games – Not all Olympic classes will be attending this event. However, for some classes, this event has extra significance. It will be the North American Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 continental qualifier for the Nacra17, 49er and 49erFX (the U.S. is already qualified in the Laser & Radial classes).

Japan – For four of the classes (Laser, Radial, 470 Men & Women), the 2019 Class World Championships will be in the middle of the Japan summer. Then all Olympic classes will be attending the 2019 Olympic Test Event and the Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima. Each of these events are also part of early athlete selection for the 2020 games.

What kind of steps are in place to ensure the team doesn’t peak too soon? Or, do you not see this as a significant danger to U.S. medal hopes in 2020?

Hmmm this question has got so many thoughts running through my head. I don’t want to share what I think are the differentiators for the athletes on this topic. This needs to be their secret weapon at the Olympic Games.

Let’s instead start with some statistics, 100% of the Rio Gold Medalists had won World Championship medals in the Rio quad, 70% of the minor medalists had won medals at World Championships in the Rio quad.

So, having the ability to win Olympic medals needs to be proven before the Olympic Games. [For example, Peter] Burling/ [Blair] Tuke (49er; NZ), [Giles] Scott (Finn; UK), [Dorian] van Rijesselberghe (RS:X; NED) basically dominated the whole quad, so I say why not do it like that all the time!

If you were to consider the competition levels at the Rio Olympics 2016, what classes have seen the most rapid advancement in their state-of-the-art? Nacra 17s? 49ers? 49er FX? Also, how do you feel the U.S. is doing to stay competitive in the fastest-moving streams?

I don’t think any classes have gotten less competitive since Rio. Some have certainly become more competitive or gotten more established since the Rio quad. For the most part, these include the classes that were new in Rio and now are not.

So, the 49erFX has certainly become more established. Maybe saying the Nacra 17s are the same class isn’t quite true. The L foils have changed them significantly. Since the equipment availability has corrected itself, I think we will see the world positioning or ranking will be proven in 2019, which will then roll into 2020.

But even when you look at a fleet like the Finn, which certainly is not new to the Olympics, it has got more competitive.

To quote [coach] Luther Carpenter after Palma, “U.S. athletes have not gotten worse, the whole fleet has improved.” To me, it’s not about the equipment or state-of-the-art, it is about the athlete and how do they reach their full potential.

The U.S. can conquer any of the disciplines. I am not scared, and I see no issue with achieving results in any piece of equipment. What we must do to ensure this occurs, is establish the support for these talented athletes.

How are things looking in terms of fund raising? No worries at all if you don’t want to talk in actual dollar terms, but-percentage-wise-how close do you feel the team is to achieving the kind of financial wherewithal necessary to be competitive in Tokyo?

Three months ago, we were in a very precarious situation. Thankfully, we have had some great, new support over the last few months. This certainly helps us maintain and of course build the support network and expertise that our athletes deserve. Is money coming in fast enough? No, I want it yesterday.

I always say to the athletes “the most important commodity we have is TIME.” Without accelerating and utilizing the established fundraising support for the performance plan, the objective of being the number one country by 2028 becomes harder to achieve.

Using 2019 numbers, I believe the U.S. has approximately a third of the support the British team is getting, and about half of what the Australians get. The statistics get considerably less favorable if we consider the whole quad.

We see setting up a better funding model as our next big phase in professionalizing High-Performance support. I know we have the right plan.To quote our USOC sports performance manager, “US Sailing has the right performance plan, now execute it with conviction.”

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

Yes, I’d like to express how much it means to our athletes and coaches to feel the growing support and enthusiasm from their American sailing community. Whether it’s due to the increased medal count and the fact the team is performing well or it’s just an appreciation of all the effort and determination they pour into their campaigns, the positive feedback in both emotional and financial support we’ve seen so far means so much in helping build their confidence.

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