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An interview with Malcolm Page about the U.S. Olympic sailing selection process

by David Schmidt 28 Aug 06:34 PDT August 27, 2019
Malcolm Page, US Sailing's chief of Olympic sailing, with 49erFX sailors Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea after they clinched the Silver Medal at the 2019 Pan American Games © Photo courtesy of US Sailing / Brittney Manning

If you follow U.S. Olympic sailing, you’re aware that the last two Games weren’t kind to U.S. sailing interests. The American-flagged team suffered their first medal-ceremony shutout at the London Olympics 2012, and they followed this drubbing with a single (albeit hard-fought) bronze medal at the Rio Olympics 2016. To say these Games represented a watershed moment for American sailing is a bit like saying that our country also held and defended the Auld Mug “for a couple of years”.

Not surprisingly, change was demanded.

Following the Rio Olympics 2016, this began with the appointment of Malcolm Page (AUS), a two-time Olympic Gold medalist in the Men’s 470 class (2008, 2012), as US Sailing’s chief of Olympic sailing, and it continued with a revised, three-tier selection process that’s aimed at ensuring that the fastest, best-prepared sailors represent the USA at the Tokyo Games.

This new, three-tiered selection process offers U.S.-flagged sailors the chance to qualify to represent the Stars & Stripes at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 in three stages: early, middle and late. For early selection, U.S. sailors need to earn a cumulative series score of seven points (or less) at the 2019 class World Championships and at either the 2019 Olympic Test Event or the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima, while being the only U.S.-flagged boat to earn this result. (Sailors earn points based on their overall finishing position in the event, so a third-place finish results in three points towards the series score.)

To earn middle selections, sailors need to earn a cumulative result of 13 points (or less) at a 2019 World Championship regatta and at the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Miami, again, while being the only U.S. boat to post this result. And finally, for the late selection, sailors must post the lowest cumulative score amongst U.S.-flagged boats at their 2019 and 2020 class World Championships and at the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Miami.

(To learn more about the U.S. selection process, point your browser at www.ussailing.org/olympics/selection/olympic-games/2020trials)

This process began for all U.S. Olympic hopefuls with the 2019 Laser Standard World Championships (July 2-9) and the 2019 Laser Radial World Championships (July 17-24), which both took place on the waters off of Sakaiminato-City, Japan, and continued with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Test Event, which unfurled on the waters off of Enoshima Yacht Harbour [sic] from August 17-22, 2019.

Unfortunately for American-flagged Olympic-sailing interests, no U.S. sailor have qualified for either the early or middle selections so far, raising some pointed questions about the team’s potential to medal at next summer’s Olympic regatta.

The next stop on this circuit is the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima, which is taking place on the waters off of Enoshima, Japan, from August 25-September 1, 2019.

I checked in with Malcolm Page, US Sailing’s chief of Olympic sailing, via email, to learn more about the team’s refined selection process for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 (July 24-August 9).

The USA is using a new, three-tiered qualification process for the Tokyo Olympics 2020—how do you feel this process is working thus far?

Well first, I think the three-tiered process is really good in the sense that informs our athletes where they are towards being the world’s best. To me, early selection is designed for the group that are fighting for a gold medal. We're pretty certain that that group will get a medal, we just don't know which color.

Statistically, those who win World Championship medals often have good chance at winning Olympic medal as well. Of the Rio 2016 Gold Medalists, 100% had won a World Championship medal as well. 73% of the Silver and Bronze Medalists in Rio had one World Championship medals as well. Early selection supports people who consistently medal at big events.

Middle selection falls to that group who have a chance at medaling, they're playing the Top 10 the majority of the time, maybe occasionally winning a World Cup. So they have a chance at winning an Olympic Medal. They're probably unlikely to win the Gold because they don't do it very often, but they have a decent chance to get a medal. [Finn Bronze medalist] Caleb [Paine] is a great example from the Rio quad of almost having a personal best of the Olympic Games, which is very uncommon thing to do.

Late selection is obviously just by the numbers. If the countries qualified in that class, then we will send athletes. I think the system works very well. It represents where the athletes are. I'm really sad to say that none of our athletes have achieved early or middle selection thus far, so that is disappointing. However, I think this the system can go forward for the next quad and the quad after that. We just have to get our athletes rise up to meet that level. It's not about changing the selection; it's about developing our athletes’ ability to meet that higher standard.

When you look around the world, [New Zealanders] Peter Burling and Blair Tuke in the 49er could achieve early selection under these processes, very easily. They're probably going to win the Gold Medal. Likewise, is the case with [Australians] Mat Belcher and Will Ryan in the [Men’s] 470. So if we get our athletes to that level, then we're not worried about what phase of the selection process they qualify for the Olympic team.

Were you and the team expecting more sailors to qualify in the Early Selection, or are things progressing (more or less) as expected?

None of the athletes have qualified for the 2020 games, so far. We've started the selection process with the Laser, Laser Radial, 470 Men’s and Women’s fleets.

From a USA country selection perspective, we've actually now earned six of the 10 country spots for the 2020 Games (Laser, Laser Radial, Men’s 470, Finn, 49erFX, Nacra 17).

[If] there’s one class I would have thought that would have had a solid chance at achieving early selection, and that was the Laser Radials. I also thought the 470 Men had a very good chance of earning middle selection, if not early selection. So both of them have been a little disappointing, because they didn't live up to their potential. However, it’s obviously better to do that now, than in a year’s time.

It's certainly ensuring that we now place more emphasis on working with the athletes in the meantime to make sure they reach that potential next year.

What do you see as the harder challenge for a U.S.-flagged sailor—achieving a great result at a World Championship regatta, or achieving a great result at the 2019 Olympic Test Event? Or, should a medal-capable sailor be able to achieve equally great results in both regattas?

I think great sailors always achieve both. If you look at some of the classes who had their World Championships recently, several of the medalists at those events just backed up their performances with another medal at last week’s Test Event.

Having said that, we have a few athletes on our team who followed up their worlds Performances with a better display at the Test Event. For example, Erika [Reineke, US Sailing team Laser Radial athlete] was able to bounce back from a disappointing World Championship to place in the top 10 on the Olympic waters this week. She’s been in the top 10 all year, and I think this event reminded her that her finish at Worlds was an anomaly, so for her to bounce back this week and get a top 10 this week is great.

The same goes for Stu and Dave. They had a very so-so Worlds. While they had some broken equipment during the regatta, they weren't firing at their normal level before the breakdown. For them to finish with a solid 4th this week is also awesome.

Is the new selection process more in line with how other countries select their Olympic sailors, or is the USA still sailing in its own lane in terms of Olympic selection (here, I’m remembering our old one-regatta Olympic trials system) ?

I think it's very important to have multiple events as part of the trials. We all know mother nature plays a large role in our sport, and all sports have bad luck. However, this system creates a better average that will ensure that you have the best boat and best athletes selected.

It also aligns with how Olympic campaigns become a full-time job and multi-quad commitment. You can't come in and sail one event, expecting to qualify for the Olympic Games. It’s been proven over that last couple decades that the professionalism that's coming into Olympic sailing is here to stay, and we need to create a system to support that.

When you look at the results posted by U.S. sailors/teams in 2019, are you starting to see signs that the Olympic Development Program is starting to bear fruit? If so, can you give us some examples? Or, are we still one quad too early to really start to notice the ODP’s influence?

Yes, five of the [American] medalists at the Pan American Games were ODP alumni. Some only spent a short amount of time in the program a long time ago, and others have been a part of the it for its whole existence.

Charlotte Rose is a great example. She has been with the ODP since its inception. She's a two-time Youth World Gold Medalist (2018, 2017) and this year’s Laser Radial Senior World Championship was her first Top 10 performance at that level. Right after that event, she turned around and headed to Peru to battle for the Gold Medal at the Pan American Games. She was in contention for the Gold until the final race and only narrowly lost it to the Canadian, Sarah Douglass. It's pretty cool for someone to do that at only 19 years old. Between her and some of the other rising ODP athletes, it’s clear the talent is coming through in this quad.

With less than a year to go before the start of the next Olympic regatta, how are you feeling about the speed and smarts exhibited by prospective American sailors over this past summer? Is the team where you’d like them to be, or is there still a lot of work left before next summer’s Olympics?

That question is exactly why I stay up at night thinking about how to help these athletes. I guess that's why, for me personally, I love this game so much. I know how cutthroat and how important regatta or each race can be. I understand how massive stakes can come down to just one event. That's what makes the Olympic Games and this sport so special.

I do worry about those things all the time, and that's why I work with the coaches as close as I can to help try and fix things that aren’t working. While I am worried, I know we have the potential. I do think that our average performance has increased. Especially looking at the first quarter of 2019, we really stepped up by winning six medals at prominent international events.

Compare that to the whole of 2018, when we only won five medals across the year. Sure, we didn't come away with any [medals] at last week’s Test Event, but we still have the class World Championships and the Hempel World Cup Series Enoshima next week which hopefully will bear some of those fruits as well.

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

I will say that the conditions certainly aren’t easy on the athletes in Japan. It’s no secret that it’s bloody hot here. While everyone is dealing with the same conditions, it’s clear that the heat takes a toll on the athletes during training and regatta days.

Several of top-performing countries have combated the situation by bringing in fully furnished containers equipped with air conditioning. We have plans to convert some of our own to do the same for our athletes at next year’s Games, but we still need to finish raising the funds to do so.

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