With 19 of the finest sailors in the United States all gathered to compete for one spot on the Olympic team in the Star Class, it wasn’t surprising that the competition was heated. But this 16-race tournament exceeded expectations with a three-way battle going into the final race of the final day, where 57-year-old John Dane III and his 29-year-old son-in-law Austin Sperry raced a perfect race to win the right to compete in the XXIX Olympic games in China.
Dane and Sperry, from Gulfport, Mississippi, were up against Mark Mendelblatt and Magnus Liljedahl from Florida, who were holding first through much of the regatta, and towards the end of the week it was George Szabo and Andrew Scott who became a serious threat.
Szabo won the Olympic Pre-trials here and has always performed well in Marina del Rey conditions. There were many people who felt Szabo was the favorite, and he didn’t disappoint. He began the second half (Races 8 through 16) with a second and two firsts, quickly sending a statement that there was plenty of racing left.
But as the week went on, Dane and Sperry were racking up thirds and fourths, keeping them in solid position for the final showdown. When they awoke on Sunday they were still behind Szabo, but if they sailed well, they would earn a spot on the team.
“Thank God we didn’t have the fog,” Dane said smiling during a post-race interview at the California yacht Club. “I was worried the fog was going to come in today and we weren’t going to have a last race and Szabo would have won.”
Instead they saved it all for the final race of the series and sailed the race of their lives. In a report posted on Cal Yacht Club’s site they said:
“John Dane and his crew Austin Sperry may well have sailed the perfect race. Within 90 seconds, he’d worked bow-out on the regatta leader, George Szabo and his crew Andrew Scott — forcing them to tack off to the right where there was less ‘pressure’. Dane rounded the top mark in second, with Szabo well astern, and used his excellent speed to overtake the race leader to get the gun and the Star Class Olympic berth to Qingdao, China.”
Neither Dane nor Sperry are new to world-class events and have been competing against the best the class has to offer for years. Dane has competed in seven trials and Sperry in three, not to mention World Championships and other high profile matches.
But this is their first trip to race in a contest like no other. While the World Championships might carry more weight within the class, the Olympic Games stand apart.
“The Olympics and the Worlds are very different,” said three-time Olympic medalist and trials competitor Mark Reynolds. “For me it was a lot tougher to win a Worlds than the Olympics. The Olympics have only one boat per country and very often there are multiple sailors from the same country that are capable of winning.
“That said, everyone knows about the Olympics; it’s not just a sailing community event like we are used to. There is tremendous pressure at the Olympics, partly because it’s every four years — you can sail in the Worlds year after year.
“I think I’ve done about 25 Star Worlds. The Olympics are also an amazing experience overall.”
For Dane and Sperry, now the training gets even more ramped up. Dane plans to lose ten pounds and Sperry will gain ten for a better weight balance and they will begin the climb towards Olympic Gold.
“We already have a training program in place for December, where we’ll be testing a new design of a Star boat,” said Dane. “We’re not going to let it rest on our current boat. We’ve also had the U.S. physical trainer come to Gulfport and give us a regimen.”
Between the training and the sailing schedule, Dane and Sperry can expect to be very busy for the next ten months leading up to the most important races of their lives. As for what happens after that, Dane exclaimed:
“When we win a gold, the old man’s gonna retire from Stars!”