July 27, 2012

Let the Games Begin

Bulldog Sailors Reflect on Yale Experience

As They Prepare for Racing to Begin at the Olympics, Sailing Alums Comment on the Value of Their Yale Student-Athlete Experience

WEYMOUTH, England – As undergraduates, Yale alumni Sarah Lihan '10 and Stuart McNay '05 proved themselves to be some of America's best collegiate sailors, garnering numerous ICSA All-American and honorable mention awards and leading Yale to several top finishes at the nationals.  Now, just a few years out of college, these Bulldogs find themselves at home amongst 380 of the world's best sailors at the Olympic sailing village in Weymouth, England. 

That said, it can't be difficult to feel comfortable in a place where the accommodations include everything "from a full-time, full-service cafeteria to a gym to laundry service," as Lihan reports.    

Lihan and McNay arrived in London on July 16th along with the 14 other members of the US Olympic Sailing Team.  The next day they drove 150 miles southeast to the Port of Weymouth where the Olympic sailing venue is located.  Since then they have been working hard to get their minds, boats and bodies to peak condition.  With the opening ceremonies on Friday, they don't have much time left.  

As any serious athlete will tell you, preparing one's self properly in the days leading up to a major competition is critical to success.  But considering how much time, sweat, and money athletes spend to reach the Olympic level, not to mention their emotional investment, how does one ensure all of this comes together once they get there? 

McNay, a 2008 Olympian as well, has a significant amount of experience preparing for big events.  He remarked that he and his crew, Graham Biehl, "have practiced the type of preparation that [they] want to do".  As a result, they have a very specific plan mapped out for the days between Friday's opening ceremony and their first day of racing on August 2.  A couple of days off to "recover and get our bearings under us… short, focused sessions on the 29th and 30th," and then the Olympic practice race on August 1st, the day before racing in the men's 470 class officially begins.

The confidence McNay and Biehl have in their preparation methods stems from years of experience.  When asked about the main lessons that they took away from their first Olympics, it was clear from McNay's response that thorough reflection and self-critique have helped him reach the level he is at today.    

"Last time," he said, "we tried hard to optimize our equipment" for the extreme, light-air conditions that everyone anticipated in Beijing.  Implying that their focus on gear came at the expense of weaknesses in other areas, McNay declared that this time he and Biehl committed early to equipment they were happy with so that they could spend more of their time focusing on "technique, starting, boat speed" and other important skillsets.            

Likely as a result of his team's enlightened approach, McNay is confident that his and Biehl's biggest team strength is now their "ability to be good in all conditions."  Although they may not necessarily have a significant advantage in any one condition, they feel "well-rounded" which should prevent them from being at a disadvantage at any time.    

Unlike in many other Olympic events where the athletes are exceptionally specialized and one race or individual performance could decide their fate, in the sport of sailing the athletes will compete in 11 races over the course of 6 days and all of those races will count cumulatively towards their chances of winning a medal.  Therefore, sailors must not only have the endurance to perform for multiple days in a row, but they must also have the ability to adapt to the racing conditions which frequently change day-to-day and even race-to-race. 

"If the regatta is in a variety of conditions," said McNay, "then we will have the advantage of being able to maintain better consistency."

While he may feel that his chances of consistency are better than ever, after many years of sailing at the highest level, the concept is certainly nothing new to McNay.  Doubtless, he learned some of his most important lessons about consistency when sailing at Yale.  On almost every weekend of the season, college sailors race in series' of 10 to 20 races at venues where the conditions are ever-changing.  That experience is part of what the Yale graduate was referring to when he mentioned that his time as a varsity sailor at Yale was a "crucial stepping stone" towards becoming an Olympian.   

Beyond lots of valuable time on the water, McNay also attributes much of his success to the "strong support network that his coaches and the Yale athletic department provided [him] with."  In particular, he spoke of the important influence that Yale's head sailing coach, Zack Leonard '89, had in getting him on the Olympic path. 

McNay's not the only person with an appreciation for Yale's role in helping them to become one of the best sailors in the world. 

"I see my experience at Yale as one of the most perfect situations I ever could have encountered, as I was able not only to have the most incredible college experience but also to get to fully embrace college sailing while continuing Olympic sailing," stated Lihan, who will be competing at the Olympics in the women's 470 class as a crew.

That "impossible, best-of-all-worlds opportunity," as she called it, was clearly invaluable to Lihan, considering she managed to qualify for the Olympics less than two years after receiving her Yale diploma.  Starting an Olympic sailing campaign with less than two years to go in the quadrennial and succeeding is almost unheard of.  On top of that, Lihan accomplished this feat in a class and crew position that was very unfamiliar to her at the time she graduated college.  

Sailing challenges are nothing new to Lihan. She demonstrated in college that she has an incredible knack for learning quickly, especially if the subject is related to boats.  Prior to her freshman year at Yale, Lihan was almost strictly a single-handed laser radial sailor.  In college though, the primary two classes of boats sailed are FJs and 420s.  They both have very different characteristics from the laser, primarily the fact that they require two people to sail them instead of just one.  Lihan worked hard to learn to sail double-handed boats and how to work as a team with another crewmember.  As a result, she was awarded Collegiate All-American honors as a skipper her senior year. 

Upon graduating, the learning and the sailing did not stop for Lihan.  In February 2011 she joined forces with another US Sailing Team member, Amanda Clark, (Lihan was on the team as a radial sailor at the time) and began a journey to learn to crew in the 470 and to try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.  Considering the multitude of new skills required to take on the 470 crew position: spinnaker flying, trapezing and, particularly for Lihan, sailing without the tiller in hand.  One would have thought that 2016 would have been a more realistic goal.  However, with a veteran 470 skipper, Coach Leonard's continued guidance, and her own experience learning new boats in college, Lihan went on to win the US Olympic Sailing Trials and qualify for the 2012 Olympics. 

Not only did Lihan and Clark qualify, but they are respected as real contenders in the women's 470 class.  Since earning their Olympic berth back in December 2011, the teammates have traveled to three major regattas on the ISAF World Cup circuit.  They took silver medals in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, as well as Weymouth, England, where the Olympics will be held in the coming weeks.  After combining those results with their previous results from 2011, Clark and Lihan were named the overall winners of 2011-2012 ISAF World Cup Series.  Only two other 470 regattas are potentially more competitive than that series, the World Championships and the Olympics.  

McNay and Biehl also did very well in the most recent ISAF World Cup Series, finishing fifth overall in the men's 470, just 10 points out of second.

There is ongoing debate in the sailing world regarding the difficulties that top American sailors face in simultaneously pursuing their Olympic dreams and a college degree.  In many foreign countries the top sailors train for a living and that can put American student-athletes at a noticeable disadvantage.  However, it seems evident that for McNay and Lihan going to Yale was much more of a "stepping stone," as McNay said himself, than an obstacle along the path toward achieving their Olympic aspirations.   

Of course, getting to the Olympics is one thing and standing on the podium is a whole other, but these Yalies have proven to themselves and the world that they rank near the top amongst the world's best dinghy sailors.  Follow along at the Olympic Games sailing website, starting August 2nd for the men and August 3rd for the women, to watch Yale sailors, trained off the shores of Branford, CT, compete on the world stage. 

Report filed by Chris Segerblom '14, Yale Sports Publicity