When the last torch-carrying runner enters the stadium in Beijing next year and lights the Olympic cauldron to officiate the start of the XXIX Summer Olympiad, there will be one sailor who made it through the gate by virtue of his performance on Santa Monica Bay.
In the next few weeks, one athlete’s fortune will be forever changed, as some of the best sailors in the world descend on Marina del Rey to compete in the Olympic Trials for the Star Class, hosted by the California Yacht Club from Wednesday, October 3rd, through Sunday, October 14th.
This class of fluid, hard-chined, elegant designs steeped in a long and rich sailing history will be manned by the best sailors the sport has to offer. It’s an extremely competitive class that has always attracted sailing’s upper echelon.
Dennis Conner, Buddy Melges and Paul Cayard, to name a few, have all cut their teeth aboard these timeless designs and the class remains as strong as ever.
Qingdao, located about 500 miles from Beijing, is where the sailing portion of the games will take place, and the Santa Monica Bay location was chosen for its similarity to Qingdao’s typical conditions.
Fortunately for most of the competitors, the local area will not be unexplored territory. The Cal Yacht Club hosted the World Championships in 2002, the North Americans in 2005 and the Olympic Pre-trials in 2006. Many of the racers have paid the town a visit at one or all of those events.
“I’ve never felt real comfortable with the Marina del Rey conditions, but we have done well here before,” said three-time Olympic medalist and past world champion Mark Reynolds, regarded as a virtuoso in the class.
Reynolds will be teamed with longtime sailing partner Hal Haenel, a member of the California Yacht Club and a two-time Olympic medalist. The legendary duo will first have to sail in the Last Chance Regatta, a contest designed for certain sailors who have not yet qualified for the Olympic Trials. If they succeed, they will then move forward and compete against the fleet full of champion sailors, and they’re not expecting it to be very easy when and if they arrive.
“There is no clear-cut favorite,” Reynolds said of the depth of talent he’ll likely be facing. “Dane/Sperry are currently top-ranked in the U.S. George Szabo won the pre-trails here one year ago; Horton/Nichol won the major championship regatta last month; but Mendelblatt/Liljedahl dominated the regatta held in Marina del Rey [two weeks ago].
“There are more than a few others that could win as well. It should be an interesting regatta.”
Only the winning sailor from the Olympic Trials will be allowed to compete in Qingdao, so a brutal battle is expected.
Reynolds and Haenel will have to dig into their wisdom trust to hold up against a younger, aggressive Szabo, who won the Trials last year and always seems to do well in the often shifty Marina del Rey conditions.
The odds-on favorites are probably Szabo, Horton and Mendelblatt, but Reynolds and Western Hemisphere Champion John Dane will also be in the hunt.
Last weekend, the annual King of Spain Regatta was held, with all the heavyweights in the mix providing an approximate preview of what might happen at the Trials. In the top five from the Trials fleet were Horton in first, then Mendelblatt. Szabo came in fourth, with Reynolds behind him in fifth.
“I can’t really pick a favorite,” said race chairman Dean Dierks. “I wouldn’t want to put my money down on anyone. There are five, six, seven teams that could win the Trials.”
“The more competition the better,” said Reynolds of the talent-rich fleet. “The goal is to win a gold medal for the U.S., so we want the best fleet possible for our trials.”