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An interview with Charlie Buckingham on his Laser campaign for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics

by David Schmidt 15 Dec 2020 08:00 PST December 15, 2020
US Sailing Team Athlete Charlie Buckingham © US Sailing Team

For US Sailing team member and soon-to-be two-time Olympian Charlie Buckingham, the road to the Games has been a long one. The 31-year-old graduate of Georgetown University started sailing at age eight at Newport Harbor Yacht Club, but his quest for an Olympic medal got serious after he watched the Laser racing unfurl at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

After years of hard work, Buckingham realized a piece of this dream when he represented the USA in the Laser class at the Rio 2016 Olympics, finishing in 11th place overall.

More recently, he took home a bronze medal in the Laser class from the 2017 Sailing World Cup, and he was making progress towards representing the USA again at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when the decision was made to postpone the Games until 2021. As was the case for all other athletes who have worked hard for years to represent their country in their chosen sport and who have trained for years to reach peak performance at a very specific time, this postponement posed unexpected challenges, as well as opportunities.

I checked in with Buckingham, via email, to learn more about his campaign and how he's adjusted his training in light of the pandemic.

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

To be honest, it was relieving.

The month between the conclusion of the trials and the postponement of the Games was full of uncertainty, so to have the Games postponed gave us time to process everything that had happened and move forward with a new plan.

Overall, my coach and I saw the postponement as an opportunity to keep getting better.

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?

This year was very different than a normal season because I was home from March until mid-July instead of spending those months in Europe competing like we'd originally planned. With limited options to move around, I focused on physical training and sailing with either two boats or sometimes alone at home.

In mid-July I received an opportunity to travel to Europe and jumped on it.

Despite the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty around the events I was planning to do over there, I felt the risks were worth the potential benefits. Through doing my best to stay healthy in each location and traveling smart, I was able to get a lot of meaningful training in and competed in three events over my three-month period over there.

The trip was packed and a little tiring toward the end, but I got a lot done and I'm pretty happy with my performances, too. For the rest of 2020 I'm staying prepared at home and flexible for any good opportunities that may come up.

What have you found to be the biggest challenges of 2020 as far as your Olympic training? And how have you overcome these hurdles?

The biggest challenge has been the inability to plan long term. My team and I have put ourselves in a position to stay prepared if we're in limbo but also have the flexibility to strike at opportunities when they arise. It has also been important to prioritize.

Can you walk us through a typical training day?

This is a hard question to answer for a Laser sailor. Depending on the time of the season, the volume, intensity, and duration of training changes, both on and off the water.

But training always includes a combination of strength, conditioning, sailing and recovery work.

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

I was able to test my level against top Europeans in both training and competition for three months, so considering the circumstances of this year, the trip was extremely valuable and I'm now going into next year with a much clearer template of what needs to get done to keep improving.

It's often been said that one of the biggest hurdles facing American Olympic sailors is our geography—that it's tough 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?

I don't think so. We just need to be flexible, make the most of what we have available, and do our best as a team to work together when it makes sense.

With a little bit of creativity amongst my immediate team, we were able to come up with a plan that made the most of the time and kept the ball moving forward despite the changed circumstances.

I interviewed Luther Carpenter 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?

I can't speak on behalf of the whole team, but it's personally benefited me. Traveling to train and compete is essential, but the travel can be draining and it was nice to be in one place for an extended period of time working consistently.

[Editor's Note: A link to the Luther Carpenter interview can be found here:]

It's sometimes said that if one over sharpens a blade it will dull. Are you finding truth in that statement? And has it been hard from a physical and psychological perspective to stay in top fighting shape for an extra year? I think the extra time is an opportunity as long as it's used wisely.

I think the extra time is an opportunity as long as it's used wisely.

The test event for this Olympics was extremely hot (temperature-wise)—are you doing anything to train for the heat that you'll likely be sailing in come July/August?

The biggest thing will be to spend a lot of time in Japan in the months leading up to the games acclimatizing.

If we aren't able to travel to Japan as much as we would like, we'll do our best to mimic the temperatures in a land-training environment.

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

I'd like to thank my family, friends, and sponsor, West Coast University, for the support during this unusual year, and continued support through to Tokyo. I can't wait for the Olympics next year!

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