December 4, 2011

Yale Alums and Head Coach Work Together Towards Olympic Goals

Olympic Qualifying Event Begins This Weekend

PERTH, Australia—For athletes with dreams of representing their nation at the Olympic Games, the last three and a half years, if not more, have been spent toiling on the campaign trail.  For America's top Olympic-minded sailors, all of that hard work has been focused on achieving peak performance at an event that begins this weekend- the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Sailing World Championships.  Beyond serving as the primary event at which sailors can qualify their country for a berth at the Olympics, the ISAF Worlds, being held this year in Perth, Australia, serve as the second and final step of the American process for determining which individual sailors will represent the United States at the 2012 games. 

At the Olympics there are 10 different classes of boats in which to win a medal as a sailor.  The system is analogous to how other sports, like track and field, have numerous disciplines within them.  This means that if the US qualifies for all 10 events, then it will send 16 representatives to London in 2012 for the sport of sailing.  The number is 16 because some classes of boats involve more than one person.  By Dec. 18, the final day of the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Perth, 13 of those 16 American spots will be filled.  The final three will be determined in May at a US qualifier for the women's match racing event.   

Three of the 27 Americans that have dedicated themselves to earning one of the 13 spots in Perth are alumni of Yale College and past member s of the Yale Varsity Sailing Team.  Stu McNay '05, who actually went to the games in 2008, is trying to represent the US again as a skipper in the men's 470 class.  Isabelle Kinsolving-Farrar '02, a former Women's 470 world champion, is hoping to qualify as the American women's 470 crew.  Finally, Sarah Lihan '10, previously a world-class laser radial sailor, is also competing for the spot as a women's 470 crew.  Since the 470 is a two-person dinghy, these Yalies all have teammates that they have spent the last several years training with in preparation for this event. 

In addition to the three alumni hoping to make their Olympic dreams come true in Perth, Yale's very own McNay Family Director of Sailing, Zachary Leonard '89, is also in the land down under with the US Olympic Sailing Team.  He is there serving as the official women's Olympic 470 coach, a position that he accepted last March upon invitation by the Olympic Sailing Committee.  Although his official career with the Olympic team has been relatively short, as both a college and international sailing coach, Leonard has been influential in raising the level of US Olympic sailing for years.

When asked about obstacles that American collegiate sailors face when trying to make it to the Olympics, Leonard responded by saying, "the key is time."

 "It takes 4-6 years," he said, "to become a contender in any Olympic event, even for a very talented sailor." 

That said, time is certainly no foreign concept to American college students.  Most students, if not all, would argue that it is practically impossible to finish all of one's assigned reading while also studying for the next exam, upholding one's commitments to various student organizations and social networking at the same time.  Not to mention athletic obligations that members of varsity sports teams are faced with balancing. 

Therefore, college students, especially student-athletes, should be well versed when it comes to time management.  However, usually managing time is not the problem.  The real challenge, coach Leonard says, is that "most of the sailors from other countries begin training full time after high school."  It is not hard to see how this could tilt the playing field out of favor of American sailors.  While they commit four years of their life to getting a degree, the competition is spending those years training to be at the Olympic level.  Thus, when American college sailors graduate it is hard not to be behind the curve.

Nonetheless, Americans win medals in the sport of sailing every four years, and most of these medalists have college degrees.  So how do these individuals overcome the time obstacle?  According to Leonard, it takes "the perseverance to put in the time to learn the boat and to become the 'athlete' that they need to be to succeed."

Each of the current Olympic prospects from Yale has demonstrated perseverance with regard to the time struggle.  Having coached all three alumni while they sailed at Yale, Leonard mentioned that each had their own individual approach to balancing school and Olympic sailing.  Kinsolving-Farrar, for starters, "never did anything like Olympic sailing until after graduation." However, just one year after graduating she won the US women's 470 Olympic Trials and went to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where she finished fifth.   Furthermore, in 2008 she became the women's 470 world champion and now she is leading the points in the US Olympic qualification process for 2012. 

On the other hand, Lihan, who graduated eight years after Kinsolving-Farrar, "stayed involved through college so that she could learn quickly afterwards."  Lihan is also much newer to the 470 class than Kinsolving-Farrar, however she and her teammate are only three points behind the leaders after the first phase of the qualification process.  The first phase was the Sail for Gold regatta that was hosted by the Olympic sailing venue in Weymouth, England, back in June. 

Finally, according to Leonard, McNay was "halfway in-between."  McNay graduated from Yale with a degree in architecture, a major which has a reputation for being one of the most work-intensive.  However, finding some time to "dabble" in international 470 sailing during his undergraduate years "helped him to make it to the Olympics his first full time shot at it."  The 2012 games are his second full time shot at it and currently his aim is on-target again. 

If there is a moral to the time-adversity story it is that Kinsolving-Farrar, Lihan and McNay are taking the skills and perseverance that they developed as student-athletes at Yale and applying them in the pursuit of their Olympic dreams.  Also, it is a testament to the high caliber of Yale's varsity sailing program that its head coach is working with sailors at the Olympic level and that past team members are on track to represent the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games. 

You can learn more and follow the results of the ISAF Sailing World Championship on the regatta website.  Also, US Sailing's current Olympic qualification standings can be seen here.

Report filed by Chris Segerblom '14, Yale Sports Publicity       

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