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Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea on their 49erFX campaign for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics

by David Schmidt 3 Dec 2020 08:00 PST December 3, 2020
Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, 49erFX World Championship Bronze Medalists and Tokyo 2020 U.S. Olympic Sailing Team athletes © Drew Malcolm

Simply earning a berth to an Olympic regatta takes years, if not decades, of diligent preparation, dedication, and a blinders-on mentality towards sailing and life. But what happens if the culmination of all of this hard work yields a berth to the Olympics, and then the Olympics are postponed? Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea, the USA's 49erFX representatives to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, faced this exact crossroads in May when it was decided that the 2020 Olympics would become the 2021 Games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While this news wasn't entirely unexpected, given the severity of the pandemic, it certainly didn't make life easier for these elite sailors who have spent years timing the nature of their training so that their skills and speed would peak in late July and August of 2020. But Roble and Shea did what any great sailors and athletes would do and kept pressing towards their Olympic dreams.

However the pandemic presented (and continues to present) unique problems that wouldn't be encountered if the Games were cancelled for other reasons. International borders closed, travel became difficult, and the opportunities to train against other world-class 49erFX sailors dwindled compared to the team's prospects a year ago.

But, thanks to some behind-the-scenes finagling on the part of US Sailing Olympic brass, Roble and Shea were able to travel to Europe in the spring to race, and they have modified their training program in order to stay fit and fast, even without the normal kinds of preparations that Olympic sailors engage in less than eight months before the start of the next Olympic regatta.

I checked in with Roble and Shea, via email, to learn more about their campaign and how they have adjusted their training in light of the pandemic.

What was it like for your team when you heard that the 2020 Games shifted to the 2021 Games? Was this a psychological set-back or an opportunity to get faster?

MS: The extra time has been a blessing and an opportunity for our team to get stronger and faster on the water. There is so much more to learn in this rapidly developing fleet. Also, we are a relatively new team given that this is Steph's first quad in the 49erFX.

The additional year has certainly posed some challenges, like fundraising and the logistics of navigating travel risks and hurdles associated with COVID. However, we are determined to be resilient and adaptable as a team.

We know that mental toughness only comes with the hard work of developing it, and this year has been an incredible opportunity to grow.

Can you give us an overview of what your 2020 has looked like from a sailing perspective? How have you trained this year, and how does that compare to your 2019 program?

SR: In the beginning of 2020 we were fully focused on the second event of the Olympic Trials. We spent some time in Miami in January to stay fresh during the holiday break and then went to Australia in late January to prepare for the World Championship and second (final) event of our [Olympic] Trials. We came back to Miami for some training in March with plans to continue on to Europe for the spring but obviously that all changed.

We didn't see each other or spend time on the water together for two months until we got back on the water together in June in Miami. Then, in early July, we received an opportunity to go to Italy to train with the Italian Sailing Team and be reunited with our coach Giulia Conti. We spent two weeks in quarantine, one month in Lake Garda, two weeks in Kiel, Germany for Kieler Woche Regatta, and then [we] went to Cascais, Portugal for a few weeks.

This is different from our 2019 European season because most of that spring season was spent racing whereas this block of time was primarily training with international teams. This allowed us to be more in an experimental mindset rather than performance mindset. We were able to try new things and learn from those experiences rather than just focusing on executing.

Since April, our plans have been constantly changing and we continue to adapt, control what we can and make the best out of every scenario. We obviously are pushing hard for [our] Plan A but if Plan A doesn't happen, we pivot and make the most out of Plan B.

We suspect that things will be similar into 2021, so we are just trying to stay as agile as possible!

How valuable was your time in Europe this spring/summer?

SR: While the two weeks of quarantine were quite painful, the training that we had in Europe was incredibly productive and totally worth it. For two years we have been training with the Argentinian FX team and they were able to join us for all of our time in Italy, Germany and Portugal. We have a very close relationship and open books so that we can learn the most together. We love training with them because we push each other really hard on the water and enjoy [our] time together off the water. We worked a lot on settings, modes around the course and tactical boat handling such as escaping the corners upwind and downwind.

With so much uncertainty about future scheduling we wanted to hop on as many opportunities as we could go to racing.

In each venue we were able to do a lot of practice racing with about ten boats. This was a nice change in pace from training on our own and good prep for the Kiel Week Regatta, which was our first event in seven months.

After not having raced for so long, we made a lot of process oriented goals to focus on for the event. A lot of those goals were super basic because we hadn't raced in so long, such as executing a consistent pre-start routine, picking an edge at the top of the course, and different modes around the course.

We are proud of how we ticked off those goals and were able to come away with a good result, too!

It's often been said that one of the biggest hurdles facing American Olympic sailors is our geography—that it's though to get to regattas and to find good sparing partners without living in Europe or spending large swaths of time on the Continent. Does geography create a bigger disadvantage for your team during the pandemic than what you would have faced during a regular Olympic cycle?

SR: Traveling has obviously been difficult but so many teams around the world are dealing with the same situation.

This whole situation has really forced us to look within and figure out a way to be productive in unusual circumstances.

For example, while in lockdown this spring, we had a lot of webinars with the US Sailing Team to keep our minds in the game.

And this summer we were training on our own in Miami without Giulia (she was stuck in Italy) so we figured out remote coaching and ways to make training on your own fun with unique drills.

It has also taught us how to trust and be confident in our ability to train and prepare in a way that will put us in a position to fight for a medal in Japan next summer. For example, we have put intense focus into controlling what we can control and not wasting energy on things we can't. We have also found ways to be more specific about a training day and make KPI's (key performance indicators) so we can actually see forward progress.

I interviewed Luther in November and he mentioned that he's been really happy with the progress that the team has made while sailing either alone or with one or two other boats—have you found this time to be beneficial? Or, in other words, are you guys faster now than you were in December of 2019?

MS: Faster? Maybe a little. Wiser, older and better looking? For sure.

There are certain skills that we work on best when we're alone, and other skills that require more boats. On the days that we are alone, we race ourselves by setting very specific goals. As a team, Steph and I are fiercely competitive with each other. And for us, that works. We push each other to dig deep, get uncomfortable and put the work in.

But more importantly, we respect and support each other throughout the process. Our progress has not been limited by how many or how few teams we have been able to sail against on the water this year. That's for sure.

[Editor's Note: A link to the Luther Carpenter interview can be found here: www.sail-world.com/news/232445/Luther-Carpenter-on-US-Olympic-preperations]

It's sometimes said that if one over-sharpens a blade it will dull. Are you finding truth in that statement?

MS: I'm not a knife expert, but I am pretty confident that we keep trying new ways to sharpen our blade.

What we love about sailing is that there are many creative ways to improve and innovate.

On the one hand, we have some training drills that continue to kick our butts, and we know they work to get our tacks and gybes really crisp. We also have some processes that allow us to perform under stress on the racecourse. We will stick to those drills and systems for as long as they work.

However, we ended the Olympic Trials with a very long "to-do list," and we are systematically tackling it.

For example, we wanted to improve our downwind sailing in big swell. When we got to Portugal this past fall, we returned to experimentation mode - when we're free to fail, challenge ourselves, have fun, get a little scared, then evaluate what works. When we messed around with new techniques to get around the waves, failure and near failure was embraced as part of the process.

The sooner you fail, the faster you can pivot to the next iteration.

And has it been hard from a physical and psychological perspective to stay in top fighting shape for an extra year?

MS: It's unrealistic to expect that we can maintain top fighting, physical shape for 18 months. So, our goal is to be at our personal best when we show up to compete at the Olympics in the summer of 2021.

There are definitely times we needed to slow down and focus on other areas of the campaign or spend time with family to recharge. But we are always intentional and specific with our focus.

For example, some months are dedicated to building strength and fitness in the gym. During a gym-focused week, our time on the water will be shorter. Whereas in a racing week, we will spend very little time in the gym.

Managing these trade-offs in energy expenditure is critical. [Our coach] Giulia Conti does a great job managing our on-water goals so that we keep making progress in certain areas, with the understanding that you can't work on everything all at once.

We have a great team of physical trainers and doctors onshore who help us check-in with our strength and fitness goals. And we have a great sports psychologist who helps us with our overall wellness, mental toughness and guides us to the right balance of intensity every week.

We like to remind ourselves that progress is not always linear, and sometimes you have to take steps backwards or set certain goals aside in order to focus enough on other tasks. The timing of this process is critical. For example, we want to feel our fittest and fastest when the time comes to compete.

At the risk of broaching a sensitive topic, has it been difficult to raise the funds needed to extend your campaign for an additional year?

MS: Fundraising is always challenging because there is no clear playbook with easy answers about how to meet your goals.

This year was unique in the number of times we had to change plans for reasons that were out of our control. The most economic travel and global logistics options are not usually "flexible," and so from a planning standpoint—this year has been tough and expensive.

However, we are very fortunate to have an amazing team of supporters and donors behind us even in these difficult times. We are also very grateful for the continued, generous support of our title Sponsor Kilroy Realty, and the US Sailing Team who is behind us all the way.

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