Thursday, August 18, 2016
Heartbreak off Rio
By Gary Jobson
After losing racing on two of the last three days, the wind came in at 12-17 knots all afternoon. The southerly wind gave the race committee the opportunity to set the race course close, off Flamingo Beach. Several thousand stood on the shore, including teammates, supporters, families and sailing fans. All were riveted by the action right off the beach.
Legendary television sports announcer Jim McKay captured the essence of the Olympic Games with his iconic words, “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.” Both emotions were vividly on display on the final sailing day of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The four Medal Races provided spellbinding stories, with frequent lead changes, inspiring heroics and devastating mistakes. Most sailing takes place on the water with little spectator interest. The Olympic Games are different, thanks to on-board cameras, aerial and water-level images. Cameras around the sailing venue recorded the many emotions. Randy Smyth and I spent three hours commentating the four races.
The 470 Women's Medal Race started first. Americans, Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha had a nice start in the middle of the line. The duo looked fast and took advantage of several wind shifts on the first leg. When they rounded the first mark, the USA was in the lead. Haeger, from East Troy, Wisconsin, and Provancha, from San Diego, continued to lead at the leeward gate. With just three legs to go, France, New Zealand and Japan were comfortably behind. On the third leg, though, the Americans did not seem to be sailing as fast as Slovenia and New Zealand, as they headed toward the left side of the course. Approaching the third mark the USA slipped back to sixth. They still had a chance to medal if they could stay ahead of France, and finish right behind Japan. Time was running out. And then... disaster! The USA got tangled up with Japan and fouled. The on-the-water umpires gave the USA a penalty turn. There are no protests or appeals in Medal Races, so the ruling would stick. By the time Haeger completed her penalty turn they were in last place, which dropped the USA to a heartbreaking seventh for the Games. The onboard camera continued to roll as they crossed the line and we saw, first hand, what McKay meant by the "agony of defeat." Anyone watching could feel their pain. I hope these talented young sailors recover and continue to race.
In the Men's 470 Medal Race, Croatia cruised to a Gold Medal, while Australia and Greece battled in a match race for the Silver. No other boats were in contention on points.
The USA team of Stu McNay and Dave Hughes sailed a solid race to finish second and ended up fourth for the Games. The lead between Australia and Greece changed several times. To my eye, Greece seemed to be sailing slightly faster. The Aussies, skippered by 2012 Gold Medalist Matt Belcher with his crew Will Ryan, were approaching the windward mark for the second time, when Ryan slipped off the trapeze wire, which slowed their boat down, allowing Greece to take a two-boat length lead. On the run and with the wind blowing 17 knots, Belcher hardened up in a strong gust and sailed over top of Greece. The boats were within feet of each other. Then the Greek crew, Pavlos Kagialis, slipped his trapeze wire. The Aussies gained and finished ahead by six seconds to take the Silver. Greece earned Bronze.
The 49er Race was over before it started. New Zealand's 2012 Silver Medal crew of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke had already won on points, and for good measure easily won the Medal Race. The race for Silver, though, was not decided. Germany held a slight two-point lead over Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, the Australian Gold Medalists in London. The Germans got off to a slow start. The Aussies rounded the first Mark in eighth, but slowly moved through the fleet to finish fourth in the race, and claim the Silver. Germany got the Bronze.
The race committee kept the program rolling as the sun started to get low on the horizon. The final Medal Race featured the women's 49erFX. Four crews were just one point apart going into this race. Also qualifying in the top ten were Americans Paris Henken and Helena Scutt. They would end up ninth in the Medal Race and finished tenth for the Games.
Brazil's Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze rounded the first mark seven seconds behind New Zealand's Alex Maloney and Molly Meech. Early this week Meech's brother, Sam, won a Bronze Medal in the Laser Class. Many thousands of Brazilians were on the beach cheering for their hometown sailors. Surely, the teams could hear the noise out on the water. Denmark and France were the other two boats in the mix. Once again, there were several lead changes. The most dramatic pass was the on second windward leg. New Zealand rounded the left gate and headed inshore, while Brazil took the right gate and headed out. Brazil was six seconds behind. The 49erFXs sail about one length in two seconds. Shockingly, the Kiwis kept splitting tacks. Randy and I could not believe that they did not cover. Both boats raced out to their respective lay lines. A strong wind blew in at just the right moment for Brazil. It was a puff and a port lift. The crowds on shore were going crazy. Brazil rounded ahead by ten seconds. On the high speed run to the finish, New Zealand made up some ground, but Brazil was able to finish two seconds ahead. Denmark edged Spain for the Bronze.
Whew! I am exhausted at the end of our nonstop two-week stint of covering sailing. Luckily for me, I am shifting gears and going racing out on Nantucket in a classic boat regatta, and the Opera House Cup, starting on Friday. I look forward to the change of pace.
For the US Sailing Team, there will be some serious discussions in the near future about what should happen next. On a happy note, Caleb Paine's inspiring win in the Medal Race to clinch a Bronze Medal was the high point for the Americans.
Overall, the USA averaged 11.6. Six of the 10 teams reached the Medal Race, but only two were in contention for a Medal. The total of the USA finishes was 116 points, compared with Great Britain with 54 points. As I wrote after the first day of racing, there seems to be parity in Olympic Sailing. Seventeen countries out of the 66 competing off Rio won at least one Medal. Great Britain won two Golds and a Silver, Australia had one Gold and two Silvers, and New Zealand won one Gold, two Silvers and one Bronze. The USA has a long road ahead to sail at that level.
The Medal Ceremonies on Flamingo Beach were beautiful. The smiles, hugs, laughter and Brazilian music were all great fun to watch. Sailors were swimming everywhere. As the winter sun sank over the horizon, I thought the 380 sailors in Rio should all take some pride that they were here for this great event. The Brazilian hosts did a nice job. The noisy water quality issue ended up being a non-story. Some were disappointed with their result, but in truth, everyone can travel home knowing they were part of a great event and that they gave it their all.