U.S. Olympic Sailing Upheaval: Momentum Lost, Again

Last week, just over 500 days before the 2024 Olympics and not quite four years after their last big upheaval, US Sailing parted ways with yet another Olympic sailing leader. The Friday evening press release was laughingly disappointing; a nothing-burger of corporate marketing-speak that focused on yet another attempt at reorganization. “During a reassessment of its business, to ensure US Sailing Team athletes receive the best support leading up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games…” A perfect example of the 9 to 5 culture of the organization.

Olympic sailing is a 24/7 pursuit. And Paul Cayard’s own words were much more to the point: “I can no longer work with USSailing.”

A few days later, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, all four senior coaches quit.

There’s never a good time to blow up an Olympic program, and this “quad” is even shorter than usual (since it effectively started after the postponed Tokyo 202One). But the especially frustrating thing is: we’re having the same conversations we had four, eight, and even 20 years ago. As I wrote in September 2019, all the reorganization in the world “won’t solve the basic structural problems this program has been working around for more than decade.”

I was planning to write a brand-new post about what should change, but first I reread what I wrote after the last “restructuring”—and to my dismay, found it quite evergreen. So instead of starting from scratch, here are some choice quotes—with updates on anything I see differently today.

Different Names, Same Root Problem

I haven’t served on the Olympic Sailing Committee since 2016, but throughout this quad I’ve watched (and interviewed) both Greg [Fisher] and Malcolm [Page], 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.

With a bit more hindsight, I now have a slightly different take: we made some decent progress from 2005-2012, but (as Dean Brenner points out, in his recent letter to Scuttlebutt), an over-reaction to not winning any medals in 2012 led to a radical change of direction and a complete loss of institutional knowledge. Long-term progress is much less glitzy than medals, but it’s what we need to make if we’re ever going to be respected again in Olympic sailing.

Loss of Trust

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.

Unfortunately it looks like the Olympic Development Program is not as well-funded as it once was… and apparently, the entire rainy-day fund from the 1984 Olympics has been squandered—with no lasting legacy to show for it. Which is even sadder news than the loss of yet another well-known leader, though it does help to explain the loss of one of my favorite coaches….

Get out the TNT

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.

What would the US Olympic Sailing program look like today if we had indeed taken the big leap into the unknown four years ago, and developed a brand new structure? I can’t imagine we’d be any worse off than we are right now—and we might have already rebuilt some of that lost momentum.

A Thankless Job

USSailing is now looking for two people to do Paul Cayard’s job, along with several coaches—and I can’t think of anyone who could possibly fill those big shoes. Which is why I feel even more strongly today that continuing under the 9 to 5 USSailing umbrella simply cannot lead to success in a 24/7 Olympic pursuit.

Setting up a new program is a very scary and large leap into the unknown, but as they say: “Never let a big disaster go to waste.” Now that we’ve again sacrificed the momentum for this quad (and for LA2028), along with all of our institutional knowledge, it is—once again—the perfect time to build something that will last more than four years; a program that will actually “ensure US Sailing Team athletes receive the best support.”

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send me an email. I read every single one, with Olympic-level enthusiasm!

Previous Olympic Posts

What Wins Olympic Medals? Not What Wins Headlines

Tokyo 2020ne: Inspirational Magic

AP over 2020: Lessons from a Postponed Olympics

U.S. Olympic Sailing: All Change

49 Replies to “U.S. Olympic Sailing Upheaval: Momentum Lost, Again”

  1. Olympic hopefuls want US Sailing out of the Olympics. Recreational racers want US Sailing out of the Olympics. Race Officials want US Sailing out of the Olympics.

    So, who and what actually keeps US Sailing IN the Olympics? It is a volunteer Board driven organization that has staff executing a strategic plan developed by the Board. It is clear that the US Sailing BoD is the failure here.

    What am I missing?

    1. Greg, you’re not missing a thing. What’s hard is that there’s no alternative (yet). And as many folks point out, getting the approval of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee will be a lot of work. But the USOPC want sailing to succeed, so I’m sure they’d be amenable to another option as well.

      Two of the biggest questions are exactly the same even under a separate organization: Who leads, and where does the money come from? We still need to find answers to both of those, but at least we’d be having a different discussion four years from now.

      1. Carol – do you have any knowledge of legal or practical obstacles preventing a separate organization from running the Olympic program? I have heard that there may be limitations from the USOPC / Ted Stevens side of things that have contributed to the governance of our Olympic team by US Sailing.

        I feel like answering this question is essential as we continue to discuss how to create a successful Olympic sailing program in the future.

        1. Sarah, my USOPC knowledge is out of date. That said I believe they would support a viable alternative at this point. Thx for the comment and good luck with your sailing!

          1. Thanks for the comment and the link. As a former athlete rep I’m very much aware of the legal issues here… but I also believe that the USOPC wants sailing to return to its Olympic success levels. How can we all work together to make that happen?

    2. You are missing the fact that USS is a designated national governing body with the statutorily-granted right to control a monopoly (Olympic selection and team management) and to receive large volumes of cash from USOC.

      Discussing any of these issues is a bit silly without understanding why that one matters more than the rest. Just like discussing US Sailing’s perennial mismanagement is silly without knowing how the fundamental changes to the organizations’ governance process in the 90s changed the decisionmaking process and removed so much accountability.

  2. Always appreciate your persective. Taking my boys tonight to a fundraiser and youth event this afternoon at Annapolis Yacht Club to support 3 sailors chasing the dream of the Olympics. Thinking a lot about my kids and their friends and how we message training, excellence, balance and success. How we support a sport at all levels from learn to sail, family sailing, youth and adult racing and elite competition, all with an eye on diversity in a sport that has many barriers to entry. In the US – which sports have it right? Anything we can learn from their structure?

    1. Susan, thanks for your perspective as well! One challenge of a lifetime sport is that there are so many more years and people and age groups to manage (even at the tippy top of the pyramid); probably the closest comparison is equestrian, and I know nothing about how that sport is managed. As for inspiration, the athletes are always the best focus! I hope the fundraiser goes well and doesn’t get too caught up in the current palace intrigue.

  3. Carol, agree the problem has been around for a very long time. After my cancer related injuries I thought I could help the team build a tactical base on the water and I wanted to give back to the sport I love. It was suggested that I sail, I had no idea that at 64 I could, in the Paralympics. What a better way to learn how to help but from the inside. So I did the Rio games in a 2.4 with a 18 month campaign. Took a 4th. I was always learning about the team and what I found was unbelievable. When I was asked before the games how we can win medals I came up with the quote “as long as you don’t pay the sailors a good pro wage you will only have amateurs sailing.

    This is the problem of winning which is run by the team without money makes it impossible. So follow the money. I believe Paul rose around 18 mil in 2 years. Compared to about 4.5 what they had for 2016. But I feel that US Sailing has no money and they are taking money that Paul rose for the O team. I know Paul is very smart and he had agreements with USS that the money stays with the team but has it? Reorganization is another word for stealing the team’s money?

    As Dean says the only way to make the team successful is to be split off from US Sailing. How can we get that done and what other organizations could be used. We should get the USOPC to dump USSailing. Then maybe Paul and the coaches will come back to work.

    Just saying

    1. Dee, great to have your input. I’m not sure pro wages is the answer (it will always be a passion driven endeavor) but I too wonder what will happen to the money Cayard raised (and how much of the promises will follow him out). I would love to see a new organization rise from the ashes but not sure who has both the vision and the patience! Any ideas?

      1. Do you think the teams that are winning are not getting a good pro wage? Look at the USA basketball team when our college guys started to get beaten and it was legal to pay, we got a Dream Team. Competition is much different now than the 70-2000’s. The rest of the world has not only caught us in sailing, they are way pasted us. We need to catch up. Without money no one will consider a O team unless they can raise their own funds. Sailors should sail to get better not have to worry about $$. That is the reason without paying you get amateurs. And the other countries eat them up for lunch.

        US sailing has no way to raise money so they are broke. Paul did get the money and I believe some has gone to USSailing general fund. After this last situation they will have less of a chance to raise money. You tell me what good business guy would give lots of money to the people running US sailing. Paul was using his name to get good donations. Now what?

        Pro wages itself is not the answer but if we could pay the sailors what the coaches make or more then there wouldn’t be a money problem would there? What do the coaches make and what do the sailors get? Good question isn’t it?

  4. I’ve seen this recurring drama through my 20+ years in the Finn class. (BTW—US Finn sailors kept winning medals).

    My suggestion to move forward is look at the other successful countries for models. Money is not the issue—it’s how the money is spent.

    What do the strongest teams—GBR, AUS, NZL, ESP do that we don’t do?

    1. Great question. This has been studied, but there’s no “copy and paste” button.

    2. Time to strike out on our own! Clearly the current folks in US SAIL have a different agenda….

  5. Besides being an avid sailor, I am also involved in the hockey world as a longtime USA Hockey volunteer. Like USA Hockey, US Sailing is the National Governing Body (NGB) for sailing by the USOPC so a split of the Olympic Program from US Sailing isn’t likely to happen. While the 1980 Olympic hockey team is a shining example of American success in international competition and the Olympics, the success wasn’t sustained. As such, USA Hockey spent a long time with volunteers and staff to come up with a plan to develop US hockey players to be highly competitive internationally and on a consistent basis. The plan, the “American Development Model” (ADM) which focused initially on developing hockey skills in the 8 and under age range has grown to include player development at age levels. The USA Hockey ADM has been so successful, now baseball, football, basketball, soccer and other NGB’s have modeled it and develop their own ADM programs. In my opinion US Sailing needs to look at successes in other NGB and work on their own ADM. It’s not a quick fix but sailing needs to begin developing sailors at a much earlier age, identify those with talent and create a program which nurtures those sailors as they progress into international competition and to the Olympics.

    1. Keith, thanks for the great perspective (and for volunteering). One of the challenges with sailing is that there are so many different skills that apply to different boats and different days… and how do you prevent burnout when you start kids on the path so early?

      1. I agree there are different skills that apply to different boats, but a good sailor is a good sailor and those skills can transfer from boat to boat. Look at Buddy Melges. It’s about developing good athletes who like to sail. Burnout can certainly be an issue in any sport, but the ADM focuses on fun especially at 12 and under. It also encourages kids to play other sports and to not specialize. Unfortunately, it’s the parents who see participation on “Elite” teams and the potential for college scholarships or even professional play who tend to focus kids on a single sport way too early in their development.

        1. I know there was a push a few years ago at USSA to develop skill cards, based on what USA Hockey (and other sports) had created. Not sure if they ever happened. Anyway I’m glad there are coaches encouraging kids to play other sports now that they all can be done year round!

          Thx for the thoughtful comments… exactly what I was hoping to spark with this post. Let’s keep talking.

  6. Carol, Great insight. It’s a shame the national governing body cannot do what they should be doing. But if they can’t, then starting over is the best option. Funding is a big question.

  7. Disagree on so many of the points although would agree that it is a huge job. People who talk about history are uninformed about changes US Sailing has taken as well as momentous changes required by the law, Congress and USOPC.

    1. Katie, thanks for sharing your perspective. I’d love to hear more. Part of the frustration is a lack of info coming from USSailing about who’s working on this now.

      1. I think Katie’s warning to all of the keen supporters of the Olympic movement is significant. We simply don’t know much of anything now or anything about the issues following the previous disasters. We have no transparency into any of the nuts and bolts. All that we know is that we lurch from disaster to disaster and the people that we do know and thought would do a great job quit or get fired. The people we know by reputation only on the board etc etc are now the ones to blame. So we credit our failure to a lack of money and organization dysfunction (see your 9 to 5 summation and Dean Brenner tagging the DNA of the dual mandate mission) What we actually need are brutal exit interviews from all of the past players. I thought Paige had the right skills and plans. Paige said virtually nothing and was happy that it worked out before Covid. Sssh.. Obviously , in the real world, nobody will offer their honest and complete assessment because they want to continue in the industry. We don’t have other teams that we can hire their GM or that our past coaches can go work for. As you and Dean point out our leadership turns over by design every few years. Keen Olympic team supporters are clinging to the life jacket of.. “we must have 2 organizations” The status report says… The support of olympic sailing among rank and file racers declines yearly while most of the sailing community conflate the dual mandates and denigrate both with a pox on all of their houses. We know nothing of significance and know that we have no structure for institutional memory to actual learn from the past. I conclude we are moving chairs on the deck of the titanic and we have tossed a lot of the chairs overboard. My only thought is that an independent journalist could offer complete anonymity to the players on both sides and put together a history, analysis and set of recommendations. I am well aware that i am asking for a unicorn at my doorstep. Otherwise…. sure… spend two years dividing the organization!

        1. Mark, lots to unpack here. Bottom line is that there have been recommendations made but no long term follow through.

          1. “recommendations made but no long term follow through.”

            Obviously, but after three times… we have descended into the “insanity context”

            I am a data driven guy… the data we have are terrible… the questions needed to get the relevant cause and effect data are unasked and unanswered. We have no transparency and unique in sport… an organization that can’t hire other competitors to change.

            I predict a 4th cycle all be it with a new organization. Why do you think the new insanity would work? we can’t even spell out the problem in public… much less get a consensus… beyond.. well the leadership changes every 4… A possible policy given your analysis would be… a new organization and we award 8 year contracts? I would interview Kattie P for a valuable perspective… (my 2 cents) Thanks for your point of view and the discussion

    1. I’m going to borrow Dean Brenner’s words as an answer: “For far too long, the leadership of Olympic Sailing has been a constant carousel with a new administration nearly every four years, always armed with a “new plan.””

  8. The big question to me is, in the minds of the US Sailing BOD what were Malcolm, Greg and Paul doing wrong and why were they not allowed time to put their plans in place? What does the BOD know that couldn’t be imparted to these gentleman about winning medals. Why were they let go? There must be tangible reasons in each case. It seems that US Sailing owes us more than, “a difference of opinion!” As the only explanation

    1. Bill, thanks for the comment and great point. Maybe the answer is different in each case? Unless we get more than the nothing burger of a press release we will never know. And as members it seems we deserve more.

  9. I’m quite heartbroken to see a team and program I poured my heart into for so many years crumble so dramatically. Most of all, it is the athletes’ suffering that worries me and what their next 500 days looks like, that is profoundly disappointing to consider.
    There is always an opportunity in a great tragedy and I can only hope that USSA finds a way forward for the sake of the athletes. (Dean Brenner would be an obvious advisor here)
    From a PR perspective, the lack of information coming from USSA just goes to show how unprepared they were for the decision’s knock-on effects, which makes me wonder what the plan actually is, if there even is one.
    I am putting my faith in the very competent BOD members of which there are many, including athletes, to stand their ground courageously for the better of the program.

    1. Dana, agreed on all especially the pr fail! So nice to be in touch even if it is for the wrong reasons.

  10. US Olympic program must have some training facilities in Mallorca or Garda to compete against the Europeans at a full time basis.
    Consistent winds and the best competition for Olympic Classes.

  11. Quick thought. If it might be easier to leave the olympic program to USSailing and the rest of us leave USSailing. Come to think about it, that’s pretty much the way it currently is for a significant percentage of sailors. In general, the only time the everyday sailor interacts with USS is when renewing membership and when we’re not actively owning or entering regattas how many of us keep doing even that small part? So acknowledge the major reason to exist and use USS for the exclusive intent to support pro level racing results. Don’t try to be everything to everyone and the focus will help the limited people and funding resources that are spread too thin.

    1. Robert, that’s an interesting idea. The reason I think splitting away the Olympic program is the answer is because USSailing’s culture (what I describe as 9 to 5) isn’t a good fit. But perhaps (as Fried Elliott suggests elsewhere) the entire organization needs a reboot. Thx for the comment.

      1. Carol
        If I recall when I served (8 years) on the US Olympic Sailing Program as the rep for the Europe Dinghies, the rep to the USOC, and a representative of the IYRU delegation – back in the early 80′ and 90’s, the US Sailing Olympic Program did indeed had more autonomy under the US Sailing umbrella. I remember back when I was serving, US Sailing was not too happy about it for many reasons but one being that the Olympic Program was independent in its fundraising and decision-making. I think it was in the early late ’90s or early 2000s that there was a directive from the USOC that the governing body of the sport had to have their Olympic programs more direct and under the control of the organization. This is where the shift occurred. It is my understanding that back in the day, the funds raised stayed with the Olympic Program. Today, the Olympic Program (raising funds for the team) has to GIVE – the US Sailing Organization a large junk of money (nearly up to $1 million, per year so $4 million per quad. to US Sailing General Funds. This money does not serve the US Olympic Program. It only benefits the US Sailing operating funds at their discretion. The question is -How do you meet the criteria of the USOC’s requirement and allow the Olympic Program latitude to operate without having to pay a large fee to be a part of US Sailing and give the program more control?

  12. Hi Carol: You have started an interesting discussion. In addition to the Olympics, US Sailing does a great job in many areas that serve a large number non Olympic Sailors in the US. Some of this revolves around training and boating safety. In considering two organizations, the first stop should be to consult with an expert on the “Amateur Sports Act of 1978.” This requires each Olympic sport to have a “National Governing Body of _________ ,” which in the case of the US Olympic Team is US Sailing. So regardless of how two groups might be named after a split, “National Governing Body of Sailing” stays with the Olympic team.

    1. Bill, thanks for the comment and so glad you’ve joined the discussion! Agree that the official designation is a big stumbling block but we should be able to figure it out. The question is, who has the knowledge/patience to take this on?

  13. Spot on, Carol. I have no idea what the solution is here, but with smart experienced people like you figuring things out, I’m sure Team USA can bounce back stronger than ever!

    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mike. I’d like to think the discussion here might to be part of the solution (and not just part of the noise).

  14. Really interesting and eye-opening discussion about what is clearly a complicated issue. As an active dinghy sailor, I am not proud of the fact that I am not very up-to-speed of US Sailing’s structure and all of the history around the management of the Olympic Team. So after reading these comments and related posts – and after perusing the US Sailing website, which was a pretty overwhelming and somewhat unsatisfying endeavor – I have these observations and some questions, primarily around governance and fundraising:

    – If indeed US Sailing general operations relies on a chunk of fundraising revenue from the Olympic effort, separating the two will be challenging at best – until/unless US Sailing is able to find a way to replace that operating revenue. Probably a tall order, but is it impossible?

    – Related to this: how much of the Olympic fundraising revenue goes to US Sailing operations is an important question, with critical implications for would-be donors. The official answer is not clear to me. Interestingly, the latest “Impact Report” on the website for the Olympic Team, from 2019 (wow: kind of a long time ago), states that 88% of dollars raised went directly to Olympic athletes and coaches. That’s a pretty good ratio of direct support vs. administration in the fundraising world. However, I did not see any mention of a “contribution” to US Sailing operations; where is that accounted for? And if Lynn Shore’s recollection of a nearly 25% contribution to US Sailing operations from Olympic fundraising is still current, that strikes me as VERY high and a likely disincentive for potential Olympic Team donors.

    – I also wonder what, if any, fundraising “ownership” lives within the Board of Directors? By that I mean this: are Board members all expected to give, and if so how much? And to what priorities? And/or: are they expected to ask for gifts from others? Granted, it is a small board made up of dedicated volunteers from across the sport, and they have much on their plate. And it is not clear to me to what extent there are truly deep, philanthropic pockets in the Board membership (with all due respect to those on the Board who may be contributing financially), so it would not be reasonable to expect this small body to solve all of the organization’s financial issues.

    But what I will say is this: if Board members simply look to hired staff to handle all of the fundraising duties and expect that staff to be responsible for all of the fundraising successes and failures, this pattern of “reorganization” is destined to repeat itself, and disappointment will continue.

    Volunteer leadership must have “skin in the game” in terms of fundraising expectations, and the structure of the Board must be built around these expectations. This will build a lot of confidence for all involved. However, given the staff turnover over recent years, I am guessing that this is not the case. If true (and I realize that I don’t know the full history and board expectations so I may be wrong), this is not the fault of the individual Board members. They probably did not sign up to be fundraisers, or major donors. Building a structure/culture of giving has to come from the top-down – with Board members expected to directly help and also lead by example. Fundraising potential will never be fully realized until/unless this is the case. An organizational/structural issue to be sure.

    Now, if the Board is making large contributions to the effort, I could not find such a report or listing on the website. This would be a sign of a different set of problems around transparency and donor-recognition, which is a topic for another post.

    So what to do? I don’t know. In a perfect world, I guess, the Olympic Sailing organizational arm would have its own dedicated governing Board that has real fundraising expectations (and appropriately deep pockets), with autonomy to really focus on the Olympic team’s job at hand. Obviously this is not a new revelation. But in any case, paying a fundraising “tax” to US Sailing doesn’t strike me as a great path to success for the Team, but if you had to negotiate something or order to make the split effectively happen, so be it (but please not at 20-25% annually!). It seems to me that this cord must be severed.

    Submitted respectfully…

    1. Thanks for all the great questions. (And for those who don’t know, John MacRae has a career in fundraising.) I must admit I have no answers, perhaps the result of a lack of transparency as well as my own disinterest in such details. Anyone reading out there who can shed some light on any of this?

    2. Hey there – I think many of you have hit it on the head that there are many facts that are unknown, leaving speculation filling in the gaps. I hope more information comes out soon. I can confirm that there is no “fundraising tax” from Olympic to US Sailing…what people probably heard was two-fold. First, with the Foundation structure put in place years back, the Foundation is on point to fundraise for US Sailing overall, not just for the Olympics. Certain campaigns focus on the Olympic program while the majority focus on USSA overall and allocate based on the strategic plan (that yes, seems to be completely discarded and rewritten every 4 years…perhaps a hint at the challenge?). When Paul raised money designated for Olympics, it went to Olympics. The only exception I know of is the second point: The Olympic budget is required to pay for a small percentage of the US Sailing Association’s operational expenses as is totally standard for any organization or NGB. This pays for services from HR, Finance, Marketing, Audits (USSA and USOPC audits), CEO/COO, etc. Hope this helps with some guardrail facts.

      1. Tarasa,
        Thanks for the clarification and “guardrail facts”. I’ve heard that the “small percentage” was increased without warning in December to cover a shortfall on the USSA budget, but the even bigger issue is a lack of transparency.

        1. Hi Carol – The change had nothing to do with any shortfall anywhere else. The Auditors found that the Olympic Department hadn’t paid any Marketing or Communication costs in the 2022 budget, so this was corrected. The finding was understood and agreed upon as standard practice by the head of the Foundation, America One and the board. FYI, US Sailing Board meetings are open until they go into closed session…so much of this information can be learned live for any interested 😉

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