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US Sailing press conference

by Kimball Livingston 19 Oct 2019 07:57 PDT
US Sailing Team © Will Ricketson

Rolling with yet another turn in the American scheme for Olympic sailing development, Erika Reineke found herself onstage in San Francisco last Wednesday relating to lessons learned in competition in Japan earlier in the year. As direct hits go, think hiking till it hurts.

"My coach and I assessed what to work on going toward the next Worlds in February," Reineke said. "Most of it comes down to fitness and mental toughness. We've been working on long lineups and upwind grinding. For our last training camp, Luther pulled together all the singlehanded classes, the Radial, Laser and Finn, for what he calls the Quad Squad."

That "Luther" being Luther Carpenter, a 30-year veteran of US Olympic sailing and now head of the program following the departure of two-time Australian gold medalist, Malcolm Page. The occasion was a press conference called to bolster awareness of US Sailing's relationship with a continuing primary Sailing Team sponsor, San Francisco-based Kilroy Realty—and to update where we are. Carpenter said, ten months out from the Games: "Hiking to exhaustion provides accurate feedback for the likes of Erika. Our singlehanded sailors compete well, but then we run into that 15-20 knot day and...

"Maybe it wouldn't matter if the big breeze came early in the regatta, but we just plain need stronger legs across the board." Which, going back to Reineke, means, "Your legs are shaking and your body feels like it's going to give out, but you know what? It doesn't. It builds up lactic acid in your legs, and you have to deal with the pain, but Luther's way is a good way to show that your body can keep going when your mind thinks it can't." Here's Carpenter again, "What we saw in Enoshima was a pattern of big waves and steady wind. Winning there is going to be about technique and a lot of hiking. It's for me as a coach to say, you're not going to the Olympics with less-than-fit legs. You have to be able to deliver on the day."

In a different generation, Paul Elvstrom invented the idea of the sailor as athlete and raised the bar for all. Fitness is the new normal. Elvstrom's hiking bench has been copied far and wide, and Olympic teams now have sensor-equipped hiking benches to gauge peak performance. The bar keeps sneaking higher. For some people, that's the magic. Anna Weiss had a great moment, winning gold at the Pan Am Games with Riley Gibbs in the Nacra 17, but the two still have a mountain to climb to sail a foiling catamaran at the level of Olympic medalists, and they know it, but for Nacra sailors this is not about hiking harder. Weiss is someone who tried college sailing, but "I wasn't staying as fit as I wanted, and there wasn't the return I was looking for. My skills weren't being refined." Weiss went out for rowing instead, which proved "very effective for working on my mental toughness."

So there's a theme here. No matter how different the two disciplines may be, Laser Radials versus foiling Nacras, mental toughness comes up. For the record, Erika Reineke's path to being named 2017 US Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year included twice winning the girls' Optimist nationals, twice winning the Radial Youth Worlds, four times winning the College Singlehanded National Championship and, incidentally, a win at the 2016 Melges 32 worlds. Weiss, along with her gold at the Pan Am Games, has two national singlehanded titles to her credit and a list of the sort accomplishments that logically accompany. It goes without saying that training with Gibbs on the catamaran (Riley quipped, to a round of laughter, "I'm not that easy to sail with") provides challenge enough to her mental toughness to make up for what Weiss left behind with the Boston University rowing team.

So let's set the scene more broadly. What we had was a press conference in a view room of St. Francis Yacht Club with members of the US Sailing Team seated in front along with coaches, CEO Jack Gierhart and two reps from Kilroy Realty replacing John Kilroy, reported by his PR guy to be "dog sick." On permanent display on an adjacent wall was a half model of Kilroy's TP52 Samba Pa Ti, in line of sight with a full model of Samba Pa Ti across a larger room, as if anyone needs to be reminded of the place the Kilroy name holds in the last two generations of American sailing.

Included the array of Olympic-clas talents were FX sailors Steph Roble and Maggie Shea. Your correspondent in recent weeks has been crossing paths with the Roble/Shea team as they train with Laser/Finn world champion and Olympic medalist John Bertrand on the San Francisco city front, doing granular work. Roble said, "We've been keen on starting-specific maneuvers like acceleration to the line. John's really good at that." Apparently, the path to the Games is complex, even for the mentally tough.

And here is a personal perspective.

For weeks I have been sharing city front gym time with Roble-Shea and their Argentinian training partners and yes, there is this thing about toughness. With that as a starting point, I can report that on one day in particular, as I wrapped up my "workout," I made a discreet, nothing-burger photo of my knees and Instagrammed it with comments, per above, and added, "In touch with my inner wimp."

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