US team update

Jan Harley gets feedback from her country's sailors on the day of the Athens Opening Ceremony

Friday August 13th 2004, Author: Jan Harley, Location: none selected
Quiet confidence. That is what the USA’s 2004 Olympic Sailing Team is exuding just a day before Opening Ceremonies. Most of the 18-person squad have been in Athens for weeks and feel comfortable with their surroundings, despite the intensifying Olympic 'electricity' - a combination of public spirit, media hoopla and desire to let the friendly but fierce international Games begin. Though tomorrow’s Opening Ceremonies, to be held at the Olympic stadium, will mark the real beginning for the Games, today’s practice races in the Mistral (men & women), 470 (men & women), Finn and Yngling classes helped drive the message home that it is the competition that will matter most.

Katie McDowell (Barrington, R.I.) and Isabelle Kinsolving (New York, N.Y.) won their 470 Women’s race after disregarding the superstition of practice race leaders 'bailing out' for good luck before crossing the finish line. Their lead over the fleet was substantial. After racing, McDowell reflected on what will be her first Olympic experience. “Four years ago, this (Agios Kosmas Sailing Center) was a parking lot and now it’s an amazing venue. It’s really no different than another regatta, though. The area where we sail is one mile by one mile. It’s all sailboat racing in the end.”

McDowell considers their team’s toughest competition to be the Russians, French and Danish, and feels that equipment preparedness will count as will each decision on the racecourse. “We’ll have to know when to take risks and when to play conservatively.”

470 Men’s crew Kevin Burnham (Miami, Fla.) also had a fine day on the racecourse. “All’s good. The boat’s totally ready, and we had good speed in the practice race,” he said. Rounding second to last at the weather mark, Burnham and skipper Paul Foerster (Rockwall, Texas) began picking off boats, passing 20 or so to climb into fifth. “The class is just so deep in talent. Literally, there are 10-15 teams that can win gold. I will stake my life on it that the regatta will come down to the last race.”

Burnham believes the winds on the Saronic Gulf - sometimes a northerly offshore Meltemi flow and sometimes an onshore seabreeze - will play a huge role in deciding medals. “There is no rhyme or reason when the wind shifts; it’s a unique place to sail. When it’s the Meltemi, say your prayers, because there’s rarely a leader around the first mark that wins. The breeze sometimes is so close to you, but you can’t get to it. And you can keep your eyes peeled, but the wind drops in on you. The seabreeze, even, is capable of 30 degree shifts.”

About tomorrow’s Opening Ceremonies, Burnham - a three-time Olympian and two-time medallist - says he wouldn’t miss them for the world; marching in them is a highlight of the Games and an athletic career. “In Savannah I watched them on TV and felt I was missing something. In Barcelona, marching in them almost overshadowed my winning a medal. I will remember it the rest of my life.”

Laser skipper and Olympic newcomer Mark Mendelblatt (St. Petersburg, Fla.) likened his experience here so far to a large-scale version of the Pan Am Games. “Even though we’re separate from the other sports here, you still get the feeling that it’s something special.” His chances for a medal “are good if I sail close to what I’m capable of. Winning would be an extra bonus.” Mendelblatt says he doesn’t worry too much about the wind conditions. “That’s one thing that is out of my control.”

For Carol Cronin (Jamestown, R.I.), skipper of the three-woman Yngling making its Olympic debut, control is the name of the game. Training here for two weeks has her feeling settled in and very well prepared. “I expected to be more nervous by now, but I suspect Opening Ceremonies will be the deciding moment in that respect,” she said, adding that she feels her team’s medal chances are good. “Traditionally the US medals in keelboat classes, new classes and women’s events. We have a strong tradition of women’s events in the US, and our team jumped on the bandwagon early when this new class formed.” Cronin’s crew Liz Filter (Stevensville, Md.) goes farther to suggest a gold medal is certainly within reach. “I would not have taken time away from my family and job like this if I didn’t believe that.” Sailing with Cronin and Filter is Nancy Haberland (Annapolis, Md.).

Meanwhile Tornado crew Charlie Ogletree (Houston, Texas) has been elected Team Captain by his teammates for the 18-member U.S. Olympic Sailing Team. The distinction allowed him to vote, with the 27 other Team Captains from the 2004 Olympic Team, to determine who, among the 531 athletes competing, will carry the flag for the USA in the Parade of Athletes at Friday’s Opening Ceremony. This will be Ogletree’s third consecutive Olympic Games sailing with skipper Johnny Lovell (New Orleans, La.).

Kevin Hall (Ventura, Calif./Bowie, Md.) was came second in the Flag Bearer elections held among the Team Captains on the 2004 Olympic Team. This allows him to move to the head of the pack - in this case the U.S. delegation - at the Parade of Athletes in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies. Bestowed with the high honour of carrying the US flag for the 2004 Olympic Team will be WNBA veteran and two-time Olympic gold medallist Dawn Staley (Philadelphia, Pa.). Hall will be close behind, followed behind by Ogletree and other Team Captains, then the different groups of athletes representing the 28 Olympic sports. Hall is a first-timer here at the Olympics.

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