This is the first in an AirWaves Series on Youth-to-College-to-Olympic sailing.
Joe Morris is currently a junior at Yale University, the team captain, and an accomplished dinghy sailor. Joe follows up this piece, below, with a great interview with Yale alum and Olympic 470 campaigner Stu McNay.
Comments are welcome, we have a discussion blog below, and we also encourage response article submissions! email us at: [email protected]
The Right Path for Top Youth Sailors: Is it College Sailing?
The correct path for the nations top youth sailors after their junior sailing days are over has recently come to be a hotly contested debate. In the past, the youth sailing circuit in the United States provided an organized, linear path, but most often ending as the sailors graduate from high school. Many of course then go on to college sailing, but lose touch with any guided framework for competing outside of the strict bubble of college-style sailing.
Fortunately, over the last few years US Sailing has recognized this disconnect in international racing experience and worked hard to bridge the gap. Teams have been created like the US Sailing Developmental Team (USSDT) to aide sailors onto the US Sailing Team Alphagraphics. However, from these efforts the debate between college sailing and Olympic sailing has grown larger, and begs the question: is it possible to be successful at both?
Youth yachtsmen and women would graduate from the Optimist or Sabot classes and move on to the three most favored junior classes of the 420, 29er, or laser. For those fortunate enough to have a team, short course high school sailing would supplement the longer course racing featured in most youth regattas. By the end of this four-year junior circuit, many sailors crave the next step of intensely competitive collegiate sailing, often leaving their hikers and trapeze harnesses behind. The repetition, competition, and organization of college sailing undeniably leads to a steep learning curve for almost all sailors, yet quite often collegiate all-stars, graduating with Olympic aspirations, were left without the speed, experience, and technical skills of the rest of the Olympic sailing world.
The benefits of Olympic sailing almost need not to be detailed. It is arguably the most competitive racing a dinghy sailor can do. The technicalities of classes like the 470 and 49er forces sailors to understand the characteristics of mast bend, sail design, hull construction etc. Although every class has its own unique specificities, the vast majority of these concepts apply to boats of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, the international aspect of Olympic sailing is extremely valuable, and vital, to a team or individual’s improvement. The recently introduced ISAF Sailing World Cup Series has unified and organized previously separate Olympic class events into an overall series, making it easier for sailors to consistently race against the best international teams and gauge their performances throughout the year. This Olympic circuit exposes sailors to every different condition sailing has to offer, ranging from the warm waters of Biscayne Bay at the Miami OCR to the blustery cold of Weymouth, England at the Sail for Gold regatta. This system also teaches the high level of professionalism that is demanded by Olympic level sailing, pushing the athletes to be fitter, smarter, and better prepared. Despite all of these benefits, Olympic sailors face many challenges off the water. These challenges, however, are not truly cons but rather lessons to be learned and obstacles to be overcome. Olympic sailors learn how to be disciplined, organized, and of course, fund-raise.
While Olympic sailing is the goal of many, few are able to commit to it immediately after high school. The alternative, some might say, would be college sailing. Aside from the palpable benefit of a degree at the end of a four year college career, collegiate sailing holds some advantages scarcely seen in any other area of sailing. Simply put, college sailing offers more time on the water, with the least amount of cost, than almost any other type of sailing. In no other sphere will you round as many marks, do as many drills, and have the opportunity to have 5-20 boats on a starting line six days a week. Additionally, the varsity programs, more of which are arising every year, offer student athletes the benefit of structured training, fitness regiments, and full time coaching. Regardless of team size and depth, sailors are able to compete against and learn from the best in the nation virtually every weekend. Working within a team atmosphere promotes leadership skills, collective learning, and a unique camaraderie that can bring the most intense rivals together. The opportunity to practice and race against the best sailors of one’s generation on a daily basis is extremely valuable but the lessons that are learned along the way are often invaluable assets that extend far beyond the four-year period of college sailing. Student athletes don’t just practice and improve individually, they learn how to practice and how to improve, as a group.
Each type of racing undoubtedly has its pros and cons and neither style is right for every sailor out there. Within the United States, many college sailors have gone on to have successful Olympic careers after graduation and many Olympians never sailed in college. However, the increases in funding, full time sailors, and professionalism within the sport has made it necessary for medal hopefuls to start sailing Olympic classes earlier, begging the question, how can both be done successfully?
There are many examples past and present of how the balance between collegiate sailing and Olympic sailing can be struck, and one such example is Stuart McNay. McNay graduated from Yale University in 2005 with a BA in Architecture as a three time All-American and a finalist for the College Sailor of the Year award. Along with his college sailing accomplishments, McNay is a USSTAG member and was the men’s 470 representative at at 2008 Olympics in Beijing along with Graham Biehl.
Joe Morris Interviews Stu McNay for Sail1Design’s AirWaves
1) How and when did you get involved in sailing? What is the background of your youth sailing before college?
I started sailing in Opti’s when I was 11, and sailed each summer from then on. Before college sailing, I sailed laser radials mostly, but dabbled in 420’s in the cape cod youth circuit.
2) When did you first realize that you would like to sail in college? When did you first realize that you wanted to sail Olympic classes?
that I wanted to sail in college almost as soon as I was aware of sailing as an Olympic sport. Jay Kehoe was coaching me in Youth sailing and he did a really good job of making me aware of the olympic path and college sailing, and how they can go together..
3) What were your reasons for choosing Yale over other schools that compete in sailing inter-collegiately?
Yale is one of the strongest academically so it was at the top of my list. I grew up in Boston, so did not want to go to college in my backyard, but wanted to go to college in NEISA or MAISA. I looked at Brown, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Yale. Of those schools Yale had the best Olympic tradition, and, even though the team was in a bit of slump, I felt that it would help my sailing more than the others, and I would be able to sail varsity right away at Yale.
4) Was it difficult balancing an academically demanding school like Yale, and the intense competition of college sailing?
Yes, it was very difficult and once I graduated my life became so much less stressful. College sailing takes up a lot of time, and requires a very different mind-set than academics. For sailing you need to be patient, wait for wind, spend all day, and laugh with friends. But for academics, you have to plan carefully, work efficiently, and waste no time. I felt like I had to shift my values as I switched between each activity.
5) How and when did you train in 470’s during your college career?
I sailed in 470’s over the summer between years of college, and once each winter in Miami for the Rolex Miami OCR. I did not sail during the college, but got in time when I could over the summer.
6) What skills were you able to transfer from college sailing to 470’s, and 470’s to college sailing?
470’s taught me a lot about boat speed, and after sailing 470’s I always came back much stronger to college sailing. It taught me to listen to the boat. College sailing taught me a lot about powerful boat handling, tactics in tight situations (ends of beats, runs, after a bad start), how to be aggressive with position, and starts.
7) Do you think that either discipline ever had a negative impact on the other?
I think the interaction was mostly positive. They reinforced each other. At the end of the day, college sailing is not an end, but a means to an end. Where the End is professional sailing or Olympic sailing.
8) What do you see as the three biggest benefits of college sailing? The three biggest cons of college sailing?
-college sailing is lot of fun. You make life long friends, and you spend a lot of time with people who are normally outside of the sailing world. It diversifies us.
-college sailing teaches team racing
-college sailing gets kids to do more races than in 4 years, than most people do in their lives.
-college sailing can make people become disinterested in sailing from too much sailing.
-college sailing can very insular and some times is hard to see the sailing world beyond it
-college sailing can be very hard on crews, because they go from being in high demand within college, to not having a niche in the sailing world after college sailing.
9) Do you feel that college sailing is a necessary stepping stone, or do you feel that it is an unnecessary sphere to spend so much training time in, when campaigning for the Olympics?
It depends on the person. Some kids from the west coast all ready have what they would have learned in college sailing, because of high sailing. For them college sailing does not bring them any closer to the Olympics. For kids who did not sail year round growing up, college sailing is great as they can catch up to kids who did sail year round.
College sailing is a different discipline from Olympic sailing… and if colleges had ‘Olympic sailing programs’ that would be best, but that is not the case yet! So the best option is to do college as it has a lot of great things to offer.
10) If you were to go back, would you combine your college sailing and Olympic sailing differently?
I was one of those kids who really needed college sailing because I did not sail as much as some others while growing up. It was a great chance to learn some fundamentals, and to catch up on lost time. I am so glad Zack Leonard got me sailing in 470’s over the summers and at Miami OCR in the winters. It got me a head start on my US piers in Olympic dinghies and that proved really valuable later on.
For more discussion on this topic see Peter Isler’s article here: https://www.sail1design.com/airwaves-sailing-news/general-news/518-peter-isler-on-qthe-right-path-for-top-youth-sailors-is-it-college-sailingq