California Yacht Club fundraises toward an American comeback story at the 2016 Summer Games

By Pat Reynolds

Junior sailors practice on the eve of “A Gathering of the Eagles”

Junior sailors practice on the eve of “A Gathering of the Eagles”

An athlete’s journey to compete in the Olympics is a long and arduous one. Lately, it’s also been a bit of a dead end for American sailors.

From the mid-1980s into the early ‘90s, the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team was a force to be reckoned with, racking up a combined 21 medals in ‘84, ‘88 and ’92. Then times got lean. They’ve won just 10 medals over the past two decades, and three years ago in London the U.S. team came up empty.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that something’s being done about it.

On May 16, Marina del Rey’s California Yacht Club hosted “A Gathering of the Eagles,” an event that brought out some of the biggest names in sailing to fundraise toward finding and preparing young sailors for the ultimate athletic competition.

The 12-hour event, including guest speakers and a meet-and-greet with promising young competitors, brought in more than $100,000 to support Olympic hopefuls.

Gary Jobson, who won the America’s Cup with Ted Turner and is a perennial sailing commentator for ESPN, served as celebrity emcee for the evening’s dinner and auction. He spoke of his own Olympic attempts, related humorous tales crafted to highlight the virtues of the sport and offered words of encouragement for the generation coming up.

“So, why sailing and why Olympic competition?” Jobson asked the room, packed with many junior sailors. “One of the great things about our sport is it’s a sport that lasts a lifetime. No other sport connects the generations like the sport of sailing. And it’s a sport that’s practiced all over the world. There are 142 countries where active sailing goes on. Wouldn’t you like to be one of the sailors who get to compete against the best in the world? The Olympics are the way to do that.”

Jobson later introduced Paul Cayard, a true rock star of sailing. Cayard has taken part in seven America’s Cup campaigns, sailed around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race, has been a world champion in the highly competitive Star class and has also raced in the Olympic games twice.

Although still a very active sailor, Cayard was on hand to spread the word of Project Pipeline, a 10-year plan to develop and foster Olympic sailing talent and provide resources for prospective athletes.

AmericaOne and the United States Sailing Association announced Project Pipeline and its $7-million budget in February.

With Olympic gold and silver medalist Hal Haenel (a Cal Yacht Club member) in the audience, Cayard spoke of returning to those glory days when Haenel and Mark Reynolds made strong showings in the ‘88 and ‘92 Olympics.

“The competition has gotten tougher, but we would like to create that dominance again,” Cayard said after publicly recognizing Haenel. “We have great athletes that come along, but we think we could do more for them if we found them at a younger age.”

Cayard discussed how other countries spend a far greater amount of money cultivating competitive sailors than we do. By furnishing extensive training and resources, the Great Britain Team has produced some monster talent.

“We feel we need to do the same here,” he said.

Research shows the Olympic climb becomes most challenging for sailors between the ages of 15 and 20. Strong sailors at the high-school level get college scholarships and end up racing the non-Olympic boats colleges choose, essentially derailing them from the path to the Summer Games.

Although Project Pipeline doesn’t fit perfectly with the university sailing path, organizers feel that an Olympic experience is worth delaying college for if one’s talent reaches such a high level.

“We’ve never had a development scheme like this before,” said U.S. Olympic Sailing Managing Director Josh Adams. “We now have a system being built that will help the next generation of Olympic sailors.”

“We want to improve the development of our kids in this country so they can compete consistently, year-in and year-out with these other countries,” Cayard said. “And have the benefits that they have — high-level coaching, money to travel and all the things that make you great.”