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The Olympics

Sailing toward the Olympics:
Do you have what it takes to be the best?

In every sport you can find athletes whose desire it is to be the best.  Being the best takes determination, hard work and continued focus throughout an athlete’s career.  Sailing is no exception, and often you can find the world’s best sailors at many of the international regattas around the globe.  Many of these regattas showcase past world champions as well as future ones.  The pinnacle of all sporting events is, of course, the Olympics.

The path to the Olympics for sailors is not an easy one.  Compared to other sports such as track, where all you need is your spikes, spandex and some gear that you can carry in a backpack, Olympic sailors need enough space to take up the whole cargo hold of a plane.  Most airlines are not keen to let you to pack a 14-foot boat in their aisles, nor have they figured out how to fix boat racks on the wings.

 

This often leads to the first struggle most sailors face on their path to Olympic glory: money.  The country for which you sail can largely determine the funding available to you.  Top athletes in certain nations will receive a salary that is comparable to a doctor’s, while other nation’s remuneration more closely resembles that of part-time shoe salesman.  Not only do sailors need to get to the events, they often need to charter boats, rent cars, pay for accommodation and entry fees, as well as maintain their own gear with new sails and lines.  The gear bag of a sailor includes things as small as boots, the prices of which compare to high-end Italian designer shoes.

So: no money, no Olympics?  This is a misconception.  Yes, money helps, but the only thing an Olympic hopeful needs is determination.  Determination will take a sailor farther than any dollar amount.  It often leads to things like sponsorship, grants and long nights waiting tables in a restaurant, all of which help bring in that extra buck that will take them a little bit further.  Setting out your schedule is the first step toward planning your Olympic campaign; the next is figuring out how to fund it.

 

When looking at the steps needed to get to the Olympics, one must first look at everything—and I do mean everything—in between. This means participating in every possible regatta leading up to the Olympics, such as the two World Championships, in your chosen boat, which will hopefully put you in the top countries and qualify you for the Olympics. Qualifying?  To put it in perspective, for the 2008 China Olympics, 60+ countries competed for 35 spots in the Female Single-Handed Class, the Laser Radial.

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Then there are all of the others—Continental champs such as the Europeans, North Americans, South Americans, Asian, and Southern Hemispheres, and the smaller ones like US Nationals, Kiel Week in Germany, Holland Regatta, Australian Championships, etc.  This list is extensive, but for an Olympic sailor, it is what is needed to stay on track with the competition.  These events run every year and allow sailors to gain International Sailing Federation points, which go toward their overall ranking in the world.

 

So now that you have an idea of how much travel goes into getting to the Olympics, let’s take a look at some stats on the other side of the equation—training.

  • •    Olympic sailors, when physically tested, rank as high or higher than Tour De France cyclists
  • •    Sailors will often train on the water 12-15 hours per week, and at the gym 8-10 hours per week
  • •    A sailor’s weight needs to be controlled and often strict diets need to be followed; being too heavy or too light can erode a sailor’s competitive edge
  • •    Cross-training with other sports such as cycling, swimming and running is a common practice; for instance, one Olympic sailor used to be a professional surfer

The lifestyle of a sailor is not an easy one.  Most sailors start off at a very young age where, in the Optimist Class, 15 and under, major events will attract as many as 65 countries.  Nearly 60 per cent of all Olympic medalists and 75 per cent of all Olympic sailors get their start in the Optimist.  It is here where most sailors get a taste of international competition.

After a sailor either ages out of the class or sizes out, it is on to one of many Olympic trainers.  These are smaller yet similar boats to the ones sailed at the Olympics, and include:

Olympic Trainer: Olympic Class:

  • •    29er 49er
  • •    Laser 4.7 Laser Radial
  • •    Laser Radial Laser Standard
  • •    420 470
  • •    Hobie 16 Tornado
  • •    RSX 8.0 RSX 9.0
  • •    Laser Standard Finn
  • •    All Olympic Classes Star, Yngling

As you can see, for every boat in the Olympics there is one that you can use as a new-to-Olympic sailing sailor, to help you progress into the class with ease.  Some Olympic boats can actually be used to ease into other Olympic boats such as the Star.  Most Star sailors have been prior Olympians in many of the other classes.

One thing for an aspiring Olympian to keep in mind is that the youngest competitor at the 2004  Olympics was 18, and the oldest was 48, with an average age of 32.  Many sailors will spend countless years trying to qualify for the Olympics, often only to fall just short.  The good news is, with the right amount of determination, funding, fitness and hard work, anyone who wishes to compete at the Olympics in the sport of sailing should be able to, just as long as they are willing to make sacrifices.

 

And those sacrifices are many.  Education is one of them. Spending so much time travelling and training often means sailors are unable to commit to a full course load.  Social functions suffer as well.  Many sailors will miss events such as weddings, birthdays and holiday trips.  It’s also difficult to establish a stable family life, as frequent travel makes it hard to keep a steady significant other.  Somewhat like movie stars, though, sailors will tend date each other—and sometimes even marry!

So with the right amount of travel, funding, training and, of course, determination, anyone who chooses to be an Olympic sailor can.  The road to this event is never an easy one, but any sailor will tell you that there is no better experience in the sport of sailing than representing your country at the Olympics.  

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