You can read the background of this piece in Seahorse Byline: Sign of Success. For more insights into the world of international sailboat racing, visit Seahorse Magazine. This story originally published in the April 2017 issue and is reprinted here with permission. (Photo courtesy USSailing Team)
Malcolm in the Middle
For almost a century, American sailors won more medals at each Olympic Games than any other country. Then in 1996, the team began the downward slide that would describe the next two decades: second in total medals at Savannah and Sydney; tied for third in Athens and Qingdao. And in 2012, Team USA hit the unthinkable bottom by coming home empty-handed.
After a lone bronze at Rio 2016, what happens at the 2020 Games in Tokyo will either cement the post-Weymouth turnaround or mark Rio as just a lucky accident. Obviously, US Sailing would prefer the former. So would Malcolm Page; in January, the Australian double gold medallist brought his accent and his experience to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to take over as chief of Olympic sailing for Team USA.
As the editor of this magazine observed in the February 2017 issue (after noting Page’s ability to keep a secret until his new position had been officially announced), ‘USSailing sure needs a kick up the jacksy.’ Sitting in his new sun-filled corner office only two weeks into the job, Page sounds confident about continuing to build what would be a very visible US turnaround.
As an athlete, he won his first gold only four years after Team Australia’s own medal-less 2004 Olympics, so his first promise of two US sailing medals at Tokyo 2020 carries weight. So does his second promise, which is to return the US to the top of the medals table – perhaps by 2024. ‘If we’re the best managers, and the best administrators and the best at finance and the best at communications,’ he says, ‘with the best coaches, we’ll produce the best athlete.’
When asked for the strategy to achieve his lofty goals, he quickly ticked off the three things ‘that I’m hanging my reign on, if you can call it that: Performance excellence. Team culture. Sustainability.’ He already has some very concrete ideas of how to lead the US team forward in each.
‘It’s about skilling the athlete,’ says Page, and he’s not just talking about the finer points of reading a compass or trimming a main. ‘I’m a big believer in education – it’s a huge factor. And you definitely need it for sailing.’
Once US Olympic hopefuls complete their secondary education, the usual next step is to spend four years at one of the top sailing universities. With six or seven days a week of practice and regattas and sharp-eyed coaching, college sailors build a very strong foundation in starting, boathandling, and small course tactics. But college sailing has traditionally existed in its own bubble, and the school-year-based schedule doesn’t easily mesh with Olympic training. Add in low-tech, supplied boats that don’t require much tuning or technical tweaking, and college sailing can easily be viewed as four years of distraction from winning a medal. (Caleb Paine, the lone medal winner in Rio, chose a Finn campaign over more school.)
Page hopes to align the strengths of college sailing much more closely with Olympic preparation, so sailors don’t have to choose between an education and their Olympic dreams. ‘If we connect well, get all these different circles to actually overlap, we will then get the best out of it for everyone.’ Then he laughs. ‘It sounds so easy… the execution is going to be hard, of course. And it’s going to take more than one cycle to get it right.’
Malcolm Page began his Olympic sailing career ‘late in life,’ after he’d already completed a degree in electrical engineering. Looking back, it’s easy to see his own search for performance excellence as a steady, inevitable climb through the 470 ranks: from 2000 Olympic hopeful to 2004 Olympian to 2008 and 2012 gold medalist. Living through it, though, the view was quite different. Not earning selection in 2000 was ‘my first big learning experience… it made me hungrier, and maybe a little wiser as well.’
Then came the 2004 Olympics. After winning the 470 worlds that year, Malcolm and skipper Nathan Wilmot ‘were obviously the favourites.’ Malcolm shakes his head. ‘And then we got a solid twelfth.’ They were still in medal contention going into the last race, but an OCS sent them home empty-handed – along with the rest of the Australian team.
‘It’s the Games… deer in the headlights.’ He sighs. ‘Like nothing else.’
Australia rebounded quickly to win 11 medals over the next three Games, thanks to a renewed focus initially spearheaded by the athletes. In 2012, Team Oz won the medal count in Weymouth – much to hometown Team GB’s chagrin – with three golds and a silver. So Malcolm has already seen what a return to performance excellence looks like. Now he’s excited to put that experience to work.
Sailing with Nathan, Malcolm says communication and teamwork came quite naturally. ‘We grew up together, learning how to win together, and to keep the pressure off, our objective was to win a medal. But we knew we could win a gold if we did our job properly.’ In Qingdao they did just that, thanks in part to the lessons learned in Athens (and the ongoing support of coach Viktor ‘Medal Maker’ Kovalenko).
The next morning after winning that first gold, Malcolm was approached by Mat Belcher to sign on for 2012. ‘I think I was still a bit… seeing double,’ Malcolm laughs. But he also had ‘unfinished business,’ even after winning the gold. So he asked Mat for three months to decide, and when he did sign on it was for a different program right from the start – even though they would have the same medal-making coach, and eventually the same golden result.
‘When I committed to Mat,’ Malcolm explains, ‘I said, ‘I’m sorry Mat, but we’re going for the gold. I know I’m done after London, that’s the last hurrah, so we’ve gotta get it right.’ It was a different philosophy, because I knew what it was like.’
And Malcolm quickly discovered that sailing with his new skipper required a new approach. ‘I had to change a lot to make Mat and Malcolm work – in the end, even better than what Nathan and Malcolm did as a team,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if age had a lot to do with that? But Mat was distinctly from a different generation. The way we talked was almost a different language. The first year, I said ‘yes’ to everything – even though I didn’t understand him. And then I said ‘hang on, that’s not good… we need to understand each other.’ So the second year I started to say, ‘no, I don’t understand.’ We spent a lot of time working on our communication. We had to work on that glue between us.’
Their hard work created ‘that resilience, that team work, that all great teams have…’ Malcolm grins. ‘People tell me about the Green Bay Packers, they’re the NFL team that keeps producing against all odds.’ (It seems he’s been studying up on other US sports as part of his job prep.)
‘Sailing with Mat for my fourth quad was the most detailed campaign I’ve ever done,’ he continues. ‘Viktor always said to us ‘Dominate in the last year,’ but I never thought it was possible like we did. The level we got to, it was incredible.’
And now he has to figure out how to use those two very different team experiences to transform the US program into a cohesive whole – not by starting over, but by building on what’s already in place.
‘The foundation laid in the last four years is in the right direction,’ he says. ‘I know you could probably say the results haven’t shown that, but that journey’s begun. I don’t even know if we’re halfway along – I would doubt it, actually. But the initial steps are always the hardest, most painful. I really feel like this is phase two.’
Like the Australians, the US used their medal-less 2012 Games as a wake-up call to revamp their Olympic program. Led by Josh Adams, US Sailing launched Project Pipeline in 2015 to better prepare young athletes for Olympic sailing. With seed funding from the AmericaOne Foundation, coach-led clinics around the country introduce sailors to Olympic boats and then funnel the best of the best into the Olympic development program – ideally before kids have started college sailing.
Historically, US Olympic hopefuls have been rewarded for their independence, partly because there wasn’t enough money to support everyone and partly because that’s how the game used to be played. Page says, ‘Traditionally, I see the [US] programs being driven by each individual boat – by the athlete.
‘That is not the most efficient – and more importantly, it’s not the best way to do it. Because how does that athlete know what to do? They spend four years learning. And if they learn, they might get it right.’ Getting American teenagers on an earlier path to the Olympics will help create the culture Page believes is paramount to winning medals. ‘It’s all anchored around that team approach.’
A team approach was already in place for the 2016 quadrennium, but Page knows ‘it will take time. You need to build a foundation, sometimes you have to build generations of it to achieve it.’ He also knows it’s worth the effort, because ‘It still sends tingles down my spine, that we got to that level. I would like to see this next generation feel what I felt as an athlete.’
And with a much more solid youth development program now in place, Page sees huge potential for growth in US Olympic sailing, which translates into huge potential for him as well.
‘The biggest opportunity for me is in the US. The talent pool here hasn’t changed – you’re still the most medaled country.’ (The Americans maintain a slim lead in all-time medals won – though in 2016, GBR took over the top spot in golds.)
Of course the challenge remains: ‘How do we pull that all together? One effort. That’s the key.’
The final piece of the Page plan requires a reliable long-term funding stream. While Australian sports are government-funded and Team GB has its lottery, Olympic sailors in the US are supported by a combination of private donation and corporate sponsorship. Page sees huge growth opportunities in the US model, since ‘this is the world’s biggest economy! The funding potential is through the roof here.’
He also plans to take advantage of US technological innovations. ‘When it comes to the Olympic Games, to win is 80 percent athlete and 20 percent equipment. So we have to be leading the world in technology.’ Then he pauses, and laughs. ‘Actually in every area, my plan is to be the best.’
While athletes are rightly focused on Tokyo 2020, Page understands that he needs to look farther into the future. ‘You’ve got to keep producing. We do one cycle, then we learn from it, then we can do better the next and the next and the next. Stepping up the ladder – not being sporadic in our results and how we’re going.’ And then with a smile, he regresses for just a moment: ‘Of course that is a little bit boring, from an athlete perspective.’
Page brings a lot of ‘street cred’ to his new role, because he’s seen the Games from every possible athlete perspective: he lost selection, he went but didn’t medal, and then he won gold twice – with two different skippers. ‘I do feel like I’ve lived the whole Olympic experience from a few different angles,’ he admits. ‘I’ve got the scars as well as the stripes on the shoulder.’
Seeking out the best in the world led US Sailing to hire an Aussie – perhaps in spite of his strong accent. And if he can achieve his stated goals of two medals in Tokyo and a return to the top of the medals table, nobody in the US will care where he came from or what he sounds like. For Page, it’s a chance to channel his Olympic fire into what would be a very visible comeback. ‘I want to work in sport, and I want to spend time with my family. This role for me is the perfect connection of both.’
Putting the US back on top will require hard work from the entire team: athletes, staff, coaches, supporters, and of course the new chief of Olympic sailing. It will also take a little luck, because ‘sport is still sport, and there’s always that battle on the course that you can’t always control.’ But as Malcolm Page adds, ‘If we’re the best at each of our jobs, the sum of it should bring the right result.’