U.S. Olympic Sailing: All Change

Last week, two departures rocked the world of US Olympic sailing: Greg Fisher (COO) and Malcolm Page (Olympic Chief). US Sailing is currently working to reorganize and refocus the existing staff (all very qualified as well), but that won’t solve the basic structural problems this program has been working around for more than decade.

Malcolm Page, Charlotte Rose, and Greg Fisher at the 2019 Pan Am Games, where Team USA won seven medals.

I haven’t served on the Olympic Sailing Committee since 2016, but throughout this quad I’ve watched (and interviewed) both Greg and Malcolm, impressed by their vision of a cultural shift that would rebuild the U.S. Sailing Team back to medal-winning consistency. As far as I’m concerned, we were finally working in the right direction—though seriously hampered by a lack of solid and consistent funding, as well as those ongoing organizational challenges. Now two great leaders are gone, and there’s no clear indication of how we will dig ourselves out of this Olympic-swimming-pool-sized medal-less hole.

History repeats

As I think about how we might turn this latest upheaval into an opportunity, I keep returning to the same radical conclusion: we need to rebuild the Olympic program from the ground up. And that sends me right back to the fall of 2004, when a group of us (frustrated by USSailing’s support at the Athens Games) called for a similar reboot. The partial reorganization that followed was, in hindsight, too little, too late; fifteen years later, we’re still trying to catch up with the fully professional model successfully developed by other countries during that same time period.

We can blame a lack of government funding, but it’s also because US athletes have traditionally thrived on independence. My generation grew up without centralized coaching, went sailing because we liked it (with family and friends), and transferred that approach to our campaigns: hiring our own coaches, (mostly) raising our own funds, and taking the crumbs and clothing tossed to us by US Sailing—but never relying on the program for critical support.

That is no longer a medal-winning approach. Professional sport (and the Olympics are indeed professional) requires a centralized structure to guide athletes and shorten their learning curve—while also providing enough support to make multi-quad campaigns economically feasible. As Malcolm put it two years ago, “it’s about removing obstacles, about providing resources and knowledge and guidance to the athlete. And doing it in that [national] structure is where you’ll get the efficiencies. Both cost and performance.” (Read more of his thoughts in The Trump Card, which originally published in the October 2017 issue of Seahorse Magazine.)

While the Olympic Development Program is providing structure for younger athletes (who are posting some great results), the most recent leadership upheaval is teaching the same lesson to yet another generation of Olympic hopefuls: trusting USSailing leads to disappointment. That will make both medal-winning and fundraising harder, for years to come.

So as my mind swirls around where we are, how we got here, and how to learn from our past mistakes, I keep coming back to a basic realization; deep-seated problems cannot be fixed by slapping bandaids on the existing structure. Malcolm believes that “all the pieces of the puzzle are here” in the U.S., and I agree. Disruption is never something we seek out, but here we are… so let’s get out the TNT and blow up the whole thing right now, while we have the chance. All we need is a great leader—and there are at least two out there, looking for a fresh challenge.

14 Replies to “U.S. Olympic Sailing: All Change”

  1. I agree and disagree. For the long term, blow it up now. For the sake of the present athletes giving their all within a system consistently and once again failing them, we need to refocus on how to get the best underfunded bang we can get for our limited funds. There many ways that I see our long term and short term refocus could greatly compliment each other. Out of every disaster comes opportunity.

    1. Peter, great point—and it makes me realize that I might sound like I don’t care what happens to the athletes who are, as you point out, “giving their all within a system consistently failing them.” That’s definitely not the case; I’m hoping and wishing they will prosper despite all the upheaval. But my longer-term wish is to live to see a system put in place that provides real, professional, support.

    1. Tim, that’s the multi-million dollar question. I like to think that if we solve the structural problems, the money will follow… but it’s a bit of a vicious circle.

  2. Good points Carol. From where I sit on the youth side, it’s a delicate balance between focusing on positive youth development/long term athlete development, and building a “structure” that promotes short term youth racing success but doesn’t hold up in the long run. We need to be cautious of early specialization and pricing out grassroots youth competitors. If the goal is creating bad-ass 25 year olds, the recipe includes specific age-appropriate sport development at each age stage, and an emphasis on peaking at the right time. Check out the USOPC’s “American Development Model”

    Anyhow, that’s where my mind went. But I’m curious what ideas you have for structural change? Seems like a really constructive approach.

    1. John,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I must admit I was concerned someone was going to ask that question about my ideas for structural change! I wish I had the answers… but all I can suggest is collecting together the many smart people who’ve got Olympic perspective/experience, adding a moderator who can keep all that energy and type A in check, and try to hash out what would be best—starting with pie-in-the-sky, and working down to reality. It’s not going to be easy or happen fast, but I really believe that anything else is just band-aids.

      Thanks for all your hard work and great perspective, as always.

    2. John,
      This is a digression so forgive me, but when you say “cautious of early specialization and pricing out grassroots youth competitors” my ears perked up. I am currently feeling priced out of youth sailing development for a 17 year old. I’m wondering what your strategies are in that area?

      1. Dave- I’m happy to digress in the area of Youth Sailing. A few strategies that I think will help increase access, retention, and the experience of youth sailors are:
        Digitizing our instructional and coaching resources, so that access is not restricted by being in the right place, or being able to pay for non-stop coaching. Coaching is still going to be valuable, but making the key information more widely available will help sailors learn independently, and use coaching for feedback when it’s available.
        Re-orienting time and energy towards community sailing programs, including access to more sailing disciplines, mentoring, race training, and overall retention in the sport. US Sailing’s Siebel Sailors Program is breaking new ground in this direction.
        For younger sailors, placing priority on age-appropriate learning and training, and long-term athlete development (LTAD- which is a field of scientific research that is quite interesting), rather than national or international regatta success. The goal of “peaking” in competition is counterproductive for younger athletes, and shouldn’t even enter the conversation until at least the teenage years. Examples like US Sailing Team and Team American Magic sailors Trevor Burd and Bora Gulari, who both didn’t start serious competition until their late teens, show that the prime development years for sailing is much later than many might think.

        Those are some thoughts, but I’m curious what your experience has been? I’m sure it would shed light on the conversation.
        Thanks for listening! John.

  3. Carol, since I moved to US (2,5 years ago) what I see is 70% of the Jr. sailing are focus to get into the College and they (kids and parents) don’t care about the “rings”! Most of this mindset comes from their coaches because 70% of the Jr. programs have college coaches. It’s hard to heard but the college sailing is killing the Olympic sailors. This is just one reason and probably the biggest one! Happy to have this conversation at Snipe Worlds. Best

    1. Maru, Thanks for the comment and I look forward to continuing the discussion in Brazil! I like to think there’s room for both, but you have a lot more info than I do. Cheers!

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