The sailing events at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games reached their conclusion, with four medal races on the last day, capping off a week in which medal races were run in 10 classes. And for the U.S., the results were bittersweet. Caleb Paine, of San Diego, saved his best race for last and earned a bronze medal on the basis of a strong series and a victory in the double-points medal race. His was the first U.S. sailing medal since 2008.
On the other hand, expectations were higher for the U.S. 470 Men and Women. Despite successes coming into the Games, both missed the podium by narrow margins. Stu McNay and Dave Hughes were mathematically eliminated from medal contention before the last race, then finished strong and earned fourth place. Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha, on the other hand, lay in third prior to the medal race and took the race lead early, only to fall back and end up seventh for the series in a tightly packed fleet.
Other countries met with disappointment as well. The powerful British Sailing Team won just three medals after many years of being used to more. However, they included golds from Giles Scott in the Finn and Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark in the Women's 470, plus a silver from Nick Dempsey. These were enough to ensure that the British topped the overall sailing medal chart (something they failed to do in 2012, but had done in 2008, 2004 and 2000). Yet the team actually earned fewer medals than the Australian and New Zealand teams, which won four medals apiece (a gold and three silvers for Australia and a gold, two silvers and a bronze for the Kiwis). Without question, the entire world of sailing took another step towards parity at these Games. Let's look at things class-by-class.
RS:X Men and RS:X Women: The Netherlands and France Star
Nick Dempsey (GBR) might have been a veteran of five Olympic Games, but he went out of the starting blocks flying with two firsts in the opening races. However, gold was to go to The Netherlands, just as it did in 2012. Dorien van Rijsselberge raised his game after the first day to ensure gold was his once again, and Dempsey too repeated his silver of 2012. France's Pierre Le Coq took bronze.
In the women's discipline, in the medal race, one of the leading contenders, Stefaniya Elfutina (RUS), had a shocking start, being given a penalty turn for infringing Bryony Shaw (GBR) at the start line. Meanwhile France's Charline Picon had not made the best of starts either, but made it up to second place by the first mark. She held on to that position in the light winds to the finish to secure the Olympic title, with China's Chen Piena having to settle for silver. Elfutina rallied to finish seventh and just edged out the medal race winner Lillian de Geus from the Netherlands for the bronze.
Neither of the U.S. windsurfers, Pedro Pascual and Marion Lepert, qualified in the top 10 to make the medal race for their class. Both college undergraduates gained confidence during the regatta, however, and finished 28th and 16th, respectively. Lepert, in particular, with several top-10 finishes in the preliminary races, showed she was ready to step forward in the class in the future.
Laser: Brazilian Legend Fourth; Laser Radial, the Netherlands Wins
The British team went into the Games with outstanding chances in both the Standard Laser and the smaller Laser Radial. Their representatives, Nick Thompson and Alison Young, were current world champions in their respective classes, but Thompson finished sixth and Young, eighth. The U.S. team had a strong medal contender in Laser Radial sailor Paige Railey, second to Young at the Worlds, but she sailed inconsistently and finished 10th after the medal race. Charlie Buckingham, the U.S. Laser qualifier, had shown potential and came on strong towards the end of the regatta, but finished 11th, just shy of being in the top 10 to compete in the medal race.
Many eyes were on Brazil's Robert Scheidt, who had dominated the class before switching to the Star class in 2012 and then moving back to the Laser after the Star was dropped for the 2016 Games. The five-time Olympic medalist (including two golds) fell short of a medal on his home waters, winning the medal race and finished in fourth overall, four points out of third. Gold went to Australia's Tom Burton, silver to Croatia's Tonci Stipanovic, just two points behind, and the bronze, to New Zealand's Sam Meech.
It was a tight competition for the medals in the Radial, with many boats in contention at the close of the preliminary series. In the end, gold went to the Netherlands' Marit Bouwmeester, who had won silver in London 2012. Finishing next was Ireland's Annalise Murphy, who had sailed so strongly in London 2012, but suffered in the medal race to lose out on a medal. Her silver was Ireland's first sailing medal since 1980. Bronze went to Denmark's Ann-Marie Rindom.
In some of the early races in the regatta, Team USA's Railey showed why she has been one of the best Laser Radial sailors in the world for many years, but too many mid-fleet finishes as the regatta wore on made it impossible for her to contend at the end. "Unfortunately, my results don't show the improvement in my sailing over the last few years," she said. "Sometimes, things just don't go your way. I'll walk away from Rio with my head held high, and proud to have represented my country."
Finn: Fifth British Gold, a Bronze for USA
World champion Giles Scott went into the regatta as firm favorite and, apart from a shaky first race, his win never really looked in doubt. With a 24-point lead, the medal race was a mere formality. It was Britain's fifth Finn gold in a row. Silver went to Slovenia, but the story of the medal race was all about Team USA's Caleb Paine who won the medal race to take bronze—the only sailing medal from the Games for the U.S.
The race was sailed in a reasonably solid 10 knots, and most competitors sailed upwind on the left side of the first leg. Paine tacked right and was rewarded with a monster shift into the first mark that gave him a 30 second jump on the fleet. Four legs later, as he continued to lead towards the finish, his smile got bigger and bigger, until he crossed the finish with a whoop of joy, fist in the air.
""I saw quite a bit of breeze coming down the right side [on the first leg]," he said. "I hitched out there, and then was continuously playing the right. I just saw the wind, and sailed towards it.
"It's pretty awesome. It's been a tough regatta, and to be able to come away with a medal at the end is a great feeling. It's been a tough battle for me even to get to the Olympics. I've been sailing for a very long time so being able to get things to come together at the right time is what it's all about."
Nacra 17: Oldest Competitor Wins Gold
The new, mixed gender multihull class was refreshing to see and produced the story of the Games from a sailing viewpoint. Argentina's Santiago Lange and Cecelia Carranza Saroli took gold. Not only is Santiago Lange the oldest sailor to compete at the 2016 Games at 56, he had fought off cancer to make it to Rio in the first place. The amazing tale is told in the video below. Australia took silver and Austria bronze.
U.S. sailors Bora Gulari and Louisa Chafee were a new team with a story of their own. They overcame a pair of trapeze-wire breakdowns early in the regatta to post a series of top 10 finishes, qualify for the Medal Race, and finish that in fourth. Their final result was 8th place.
"We picked up eight spots in three days in a pretty tough fleet, and I'm pretty proud of that," said Gulari, a two-time Moth class world champion and U.S. Yachtsman of the Year. [Without the breakdowns,] we might have been a heck of a lot closer to the podium, and maybe even pulled it off. Who knows, but I couldn't be more proud of Louisa or the effort we put forth together."
470 Men and 470 Women: Near Misses for USA
The most experienced Team USA skipper at the 2016 Olympics was Stu McNay, making his third trip to the Games in the Men's 470, this time with Dave Hughes on the wire in front of him. McNay and Hughes had earned medals at 16 major events during their four-year campaign and until the end of the preliminary races, they remained within striking distance of a podium finish. That day, they won the first race, which put them in a medal position. But in the next two races they finished 11th and 14th, dropping to fourth and too far off in total points to move back up in the medal race.
They sailed well in the medal race and and finished second, securing fourth for the series behind Croatia's Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic (gold), Australia's Mathew Belcher and Will Ryan (silver) and Greece's Panagiotis Mantis and Pavlos Kagialis (bronze). Afterwards, a philosophical McNay said that they were happy to have the chance to fight for a podium spot "...which is all you can ask for as a competitor."
In the Women's 470, the British duo of Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark came into the Games looking strong and had locked up a gold medal before the medal race. The battle was fully on for silver and bronze, and Team USA's Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha were not only in the thick of it, they led the first lap of the medal race.
"We had a really good first beat, and then the racing got tricky, the fleet condensed, and it got pretty close," said Provancha afterwards. "The wind was up and down coming off Sugarloaf [Mountain], and the fleet split on the second upwind leg. We had to pick a side, and we went left. Unfortunately when the fleet converged again it was all one tight-knit group. On the last run, we sailed out of the pressure, fouled a boat, and had to spin." Making their penalty turns pushed the U.S. team into last place and off the podium, opening the door for New Zealand to silver and France, the bronze.
"It's hard for this to happen at the Olympics," Provancha told NBC News onshore. "The girls that medalled deserve it, and obviously we're disappointed that we didn't perform today, but we really gave this regatta our all. We fought hard, and it's just not our time right now."
49er: Kiwis Untouchable
There was no challenge for the top spot in the men's skiff class. It belonged to New Zealand's Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, who gave a masterclass in pure and absolute domination. The duo had a massive, almost unbelievable 37 point lead going into the medal race. To top it all, they won the medal race in style to finish on 35 points for the regatta ahead of 2012 gold medallists Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen from Australia at 78 points. The Kiwi's would scoop 'Performance of the Regatta' if such an award existed. Bronze went to Germany.
The U.S. 49er team of Thomas Barrows and Joe Morris improved during the regatta but were generally in the second half of the fleet. In the closing races, they often found themselves towards the front in the early going but couldn't sustain their position and never contended for the medal race.
49erFX: Gold for Brazil
The 49erFX was a new class for Rio, and it undoubtedly delivered some of the most exciting racing of the Games. Medal hopes from a U.S. perspective were a longshot for the young team of Paris Henken and Helena Scutt who had yet to develop a strong international track record. Yet they surprised many by finishing in the top 10 in all but two preliminary races and qualified for the medal race.
The medal race produced an absolute thriller, with a fabulous downwind sprint to the finish that ultimately saw Brazil’s Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze grab gold ahead of New Zealand's Alex Maloney and Molly Meech by just two seconds. How to delight the home crowd: deliver the country's only sailing medal from the Games in the final race of the final sailing event for 2016 and make it a gold too!
Martine Grael's victory continues a great family tradition, her father Torben having won five Olympic medals for Brazil. Torben was watching from a coach boat and was one of the first to congratulate his daughter. Martine said, "To receive the medals here in Rio with all our friends and family is indescribable. But I didn't think about the fact the Brazilian sailing team had no medals. I was just focused on the race, nothing else.”
Team USA, Contending Again
Over the years, Team USA has won more medals than any other—although fewer golds than Team GBR. In 2016, the team came home with a single medal, but that was one more than in London 2012. In a press release after the competition, Josh Adams, Managing Director of U.S. Olympic Sailing summed things up this way:
"We are very proud of the effort this team submitted in Rio. We came ready to compete against the world's best and showed Team USA's ability to contend. Caleb Paine set the pace with his bronze medal, an outstanding performance. We are equally proud of the American sailors in six classes who raced in their medal races and the positive way in which all 15 athletes represented their country in Olympic competition."
The team results bear out Adams' positive assessment. Competitive progress was made over the last four years, and if several current team members maintain their efforts, improvement seems likely. For Team USA, the real test won't only be in four years at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but also four years later, when increased efforts to improve the U.S. youth development program may begin to bear fruit.
Yet as another chapter closes in the long and colorful history of Olympic sailing competition, it seems unlikely that any team will again dominate as the U.S. once did, and as Team GBR more recently has. Success will be measured in any increase in the number of classes in which sailors qualify for the medal races and then in raising a growing number of those qualifiers to the elite level of regularly contending for world championship and Olympic medals. But as was proven in these Games once again, becoming an elite competitor in an Olympic class merely gives you the opportunity to compete for a medal, which is different from many Olympic sports. Perhaps its due to the much greater number of variables that sailors must master to succeed over a long series of races, not least of which is the variations in the wind.
Editor's note: Several sections of this article are based on the recent story "2016 Olympic Sailing round-up" by Gael Pawson, published on uk.boats.com.