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An interview with Luther Carpenter ahead of the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Miami

by David Schmidt 8 Jan 2020 08:00 PST January 16-25, 2020
Luther Carpenter is US Sailing's Olympic head coach © Jesus Renedo/Sailing Energy/World Sailing

If you’re a fan of U.S. Olympic sailing efforts, you’re well-familiar with the fact that the team is deep into a less-than-stellar (and historically unusual) losing streak that started at the London 2012 Olympics, and, with the exception of a lone bronze medal in the Finn class at the Rio 2016 Olympics, still continues to vex our country’s fastest Olympic class sailors. Given our country’s rich and proud history as the second-most-decorated country in Olympic sailing history, all players are working overtime to remedy this situation and return to the halcyon days when our sailors brought home the shiniest of Olympic trappings.

Not surprisingly, the powers that be at US Sailing have made a series of staffing changes within the leadership ranks of the Olympic sailing program. Most recently, in September of 2019, the team “agreed to part ways” with double Olympic gold medal winner Malcolm Paige (AUS), who served as U.S. Sailing’s Chief of Olympic Sailing for almost three years.

Recently, the organization instead elected to promote Luther Carpenter, their longest-serving and most successful coach, to serve as Olympic head coach and guide the sailors and the team through their final regattas of the 2020 Olympic quadrennial, culminating with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (July 24-August 9, 2020).

To date, Carpenter—who is widely respected—has successfully coached U.S. sailors to five Olympic medals in four classes, making him one of the most successful sailing coaches on the global stage.

I checked in with Carpenter, via email, to learn more about his challenges and preparations ahead of the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series Miami (January 16-25, 2020), which serves as the first international Olympic class regatta of 2020.

What are your biggest challenges as you prepare to lead the team to their last World Cup Series Miami regatta of the 2020 Olympic quadrennial?

Miami 2020 will be an efficient period and event for us this year, as many of the Olympic classes will be in Australia preparing for the February Worlds. 470s, Finns, and RS:X scores will count toward the U.S. Olympic Trials. There is an increased importance in these classes as the third component of the Olympic trials, but because of the anticipated smaller fleets, the finish positions will have less performance impact than the 2019 and 2020 Worlds.

For our athletes, the month of January in Miami is an important phase of the schedule leading up to the Games, and we will spend time focusing on the current goals and skills needed for each campaign. I’ll also emphasize fitness for the Finns in the early part of the month.

As we look forward to the Olympics in Japan, we know we will need to excel in wave technique, so we have been spending a large amount of time on the ocean off of Key Biscayne. The wave-state and conditions have been great there but are obviously different from the flat water and chop that the Miami regatta will present. So, we must balance the long-term goals with the short, and lean more towards bay sailing as we get closer to the regatta.

What’s different and harder/easier about preparing for this regatta in your newfound role as Head Coach, compared to your previous role as a senior coach?

The two roles have much in common, for I have always been a watchful eye and served as an advisor to most of our classes. Of course, there is more of an administrative role in my new position, but as we have progressed through these first few months, we have pushed through a lot of the time-consuming issues and are fine tuning our systems.

We have a great support team of Meredith Brody, Sally Barkow, Leandro Spina, Jack Gierhart, as well as a media and marketing staff that we have worked with to find a balance of reporting from a commercial and a performance side.

It has been quite challenging managing World Championships in New Zealand, Australia, and our program at home all at the same time. So the Miami event will finally have us all in the same location and regatta!

Are you advising that sailors enter this year’s World Cup Series Miami with a different mindset/headspace than you did in 2019 or 2018? And if so, is that governed by the fact that 2020 is an Olympic regatta year?

I approach every event with an outlook of goal setting and working on tasks at hand. I firmly believe that we are always learning and have described the process as, “we will keep learning until the closing ceremony at the Games.”

Of course, our athletes have accomplished most of the basic and advanced skills at this point in the quad, so there is the opportunity, expectation, and hunger to look and push for more subtlety in each of our performances.

How much—if any—corollary relationship exists between strong U.S. finishes at this year’s last World Cup Series Miami and podium finishes at this summer’s Olympic Games?

With participation down this year, and the expectation to use this event as a practice event for performance, I’m expecting us to be on the podium in Miami. The confidence and practice of medaling is important to the process. Though, obviously medaling in Miami can’t be compared to the depth of competition we will face in Japan.

How important is it for U.S. sailors to have at least one World Cup Series event on U.S. waters? Can you please explain?

Having a top-level International event in the U.S. is a huge boost to our program. It brings the best of the international field over [to the USA] and allows us to be great hosts to a cooperative training playground. Most of the world loves to come enjoy the warm Miami conditions in the dead of winter, so it isn’t a hard sell.

Of course, from a development side, hosting an event like Miami also gives our pipeline sailors an affordable way to experience sailing against the world’s best, in a comfortable surrounding that most have enjoyed for years. It’s also very affordable for our athletes to have more top coaching from the vast depth of coaching personnel in our country.

Looking ahead to the road in front of you and the team in 2020, what do you see as the biggest challenges? Likewise, what do you see as the team’s best chances to shine on the international stage?

I’m a huge believer in the process. I preach honest evaluation, planning the track of solution, and rolling up the sleeves and doing the work. Clarity is a word I use and think about a lot-when we see all things in sailing clearly, the path to improvement and performance is not as elusive as many think. So, I don’t think of these things as challenges, but just as reminders that we can accomplish a lot in the next seven months. If you look at the performance jumps that our Nacra, 49er, and FX sailors made in the last 75 days, it shows what we can do when we focus and create a cohesive and positive energy.

I’m advertising to our team that 60-day cycles of the process above is the key. We have three 60-day cycles left. That gives us clarity, the right amount of urgency, but with the level belief that each day we hit the water, we know how and why it will help our chances at the Games.

Our team has exceptional talent. All of our top athletes come from exactly the demographic we would hope for. College sailors of the year, Youth World Champions, International Class medalists. The key in this Olympic Games is to teach those with budding young talent, how to fast track to veteran skills and moves on the racecourse.

Our job is to package that up, provide clear leadership and coaching, and keep feeding that veteran knowledge at the right rate. It’s so exciting to watch them grow into professional level sailors. Sometimes it is a fast progression, and sometimes it takes a while to get there in certain categories.

We do have some athletes that could be considered [our] best chances to shine at the Games. Our 470 Men have extensive experience, and we are working hard to fine tune their end game. Our Radial squad is oozing talent from three different eras and could certainly rise to the challenge in Japan. Our Laser sailors have had their best quad ever, and our FX class is surging up the ranks and figures to be in contention for a possible podium spot. The Finn class is very competitive, and we proved last quad that if you put in a solid event and stay in the game, you can deliver at the end for a medal.

But as you can probably tell, for me, it’s about defining the bar of performance, and realizing the gains to be made. Our addiction to sailing is the quest to master it, and on any given day, even Ben Ainslie, Robert Scheidt, Santi Lange, and other champions still thirst to figure out the next leg.

Clarity, action, result. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, and it’s what we are all about.

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