The Olympic flags flew straight at the California Yacht Club Friday, October 5th, as force five winds blew through the outdoor opening day ceremony of the Olympic Trials, which are being held all week long.
The ceremony kicked off a series that will decide who represents the United States in the Star Class for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (and at Qingdao for the sailing events).
Athletes and organizers smirked as these strong winds blew through the podium microphone and thundered through the P.A. system. Smirks because this Southern California location was chosen for its Qingdao-like light wind characteristics, but it felt more like the Golden Gate Yacht Club.
The best Star sailors in the country and all the world stood on the lawn being introduced to the small gathering. County Supervisor Don Knabe spoke of the importance of the event and its greater American relevance. But competitor and local hopeful Rick Peters probably summed it up best when he described the pre-race energy of the reception: “It’s like one big raw nerve in here.”
One raw nerve because the competition is as deep and talent-laden as any race most have ever sailed and the stakes are on the highest level. It’s winner take all, with the winning crew from these trials representing the United States in the XXIX Summer Games.
World champions, North American champions and Olympic medalists all in one small 19-boat fleet vying for the ultimate affirmation and lifelong moniker — Olympic medalist.
On Saturday, October 6th, the fleet took to the water and in a decent breeze got to the business of battling on the race course.
Racers from all over the country lined up for the first day of racing, but it’s from the California Yacht Club itself that one of the most decorated and imposing sailors hails. Olympic medalist Hal Haenel, with longtime skipper Mark Reynolds (from San Diego), are the most notable and distinguished in the fleet. Haenel won gold in the Star Class in the 1992 Olympics and Silver in 1988. While their campaign for this year’s games has been very laid back, they are still a team to watch. They currently sit in fourth with great placement after a poor first race.
“We learned our lesson — you can’t chase those shifts, you have to be in phase,” said Haenel after the first day. “We feel good after the first series, but it’s a long week.”
Reynolds and Haenel know, more than anyone in the pack, that patience and calmness under pressure equal consistency, and that’s what wins regattas.
“It’s a small fleet and there’s a lot of good guys out there,” Haenel continued. “They’re not going to let you pass. If you get into tenth, it’s not just ‘sail on through’, you have to earn every point. Hopefully we’re in the hunt at the end of the week, that’s our game plan.”
Most who are in the know picked the same five to seven teams that they thought were capable of winning the trials. So far, with six races completed (at press time) these names are indeed the ones that are showing up at the top of the leader board.
The front-runner Mark Mendelblatt and Magnus Liljedahl were in everyone’s top three and are proving the pundits correct. They have two firsts, three thirds and an eighth putting them nine points ahead of John Dane and his son-in-law Austin Sperry. They have been very consistent in the relatively steady conditions of the first two days and hung tight in the incredibly shifty scenario of day three where the mark-set boat was traveling all over the bay chasing the wind direction.
“What you learn early on in the school of sailboat racing is to accept the conditions given to you,” said Liljedah, who sailed his first trials back in 1976 and has crewed for 20 Olympic medalists. “In heavy air the fleet gets thinner and thinner — in light air anyone can win a race. So, for us, heavy air would be a good thing, but we’ll take anything that gets thrown at us.”
George Szabo with Andrew Scott, who won the pre-trials last year and is a favorite to win, is in a comfortable third place with Reynolds and Haenel behind them.
The other two teams that are being picked as definite potential winners are Andy Horton with Brad Nichol and Erik Lidecis with Michael Marzahi, who are sitting in sixth and seventh respectively.
The predictions are all still valid at this point, but there are many more races to go until October 14th, when the trials conclude. Whoever wins will be asked to carry the weight of a country on their shoulders, but will be proud to carry the load.
“Whoever represents the United States in China,” said Haenel of a possible victory at the trials, “has to full-out do their best and hopefully bring home a medal — that’s the goal, we understand that.”