For the first time, USSailing is trying something that other countries have done for years: selecting most of its 2012 Olympic team out of two international events.

Olympic flag waving at the closing ceremony in Athens 2004

Olympic flag waving at the closing ceremony in Athens 2004

We won’t know until the Medal Ceremonies next year whether this test achieved its goal of better preparing our athletes for the Games. But now that event #1, Skandia Sail for Gold, has been completed, I’d like to state my support for this new approach.

Our traditional stand-alone Olympic Trials were based on an outdated model of amateur athletes who quit school or jobs for the final months before the Trials to train full time. Today, Olympic sailing is a full-time job. And while success internationally means winning in large deep fleets, winning a US-only Trials meant finishing first in a small fleet. The skills required are very different—which is why the rest of the world left stand-alone Trials behind a long time ago.

The goal of our Olympic program is to win medals. Incorporating the Trials into events that sailors would go to anyway eliminates a large distraction. And it also selects sailors who can perform under pressure in a deep fleet—against the same international competitors who the winning team will meet again at the Games.

There was a short-term downside to the new system: a reduced medal count at Skandia Sail for Gold. The only two medals were in Women’s Match Racing, which isn’t part of this new Trials system; several other sailors posted results significantly below their “usual” finishes.

But a little tweaking to the selection procedures for the next quadrennium will eliminate the benefit of pushing back another US team. By adding an overall result requirement, sailors will focus on their own performance again. We will see this at Trials Event #2, the ISAF Sailing World Championship in Perth next December, since in addition to winning the Trials, sailors must qualify the country for the Olympics.

No matter which athletes earn the berths for 2012, the US Olympic Team will be a group of full-time sailors who have given up significant chunks of the past several years to train and compete. For today’s Olympic hopefuls, using international regattas as our Trials just makes sense.

Best of all, with six months between the two Trials events, we will also see who can best capitalize on the lessons learned at event #1—one of many important skills that will help bring home medals in 2012.

To see who’s currently leading in each class, view the USSTAG Trials Tracker.