December 23, 2011

Yale Sailing Alums to Represent at the Olympic Games

"Citius, Altius, Fortius", "For God, For Country, For Yale"

PERTH, Australia – The ISAF Sailing World Championships concluded on Sunday the 18th after two straight weeks of competition between some of the best sailors in the world.  With the Olympics a mere eight months away, the stakes at this year's ISAF worlds were higher than usual for many athletes.  For the American competitors this was particularly true, seeing as the event served to either make or break their Olympic dreams.  The event's results have determined which individual sailors will represent the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games.  Of the 12 that made the cut, two of them are recent graduates of Yale College. 

Stu McNay '05 and Sarah Lihan '10 have qualified to represent the US in the men's and women's two-person 470 dinghy classes.  Although their shared ultimate goal is doubtlessly to obtain a medal, qualification is easily more than half of the battle.

Since each country only gets one Olympic berth per class, the Olympic qualification process has always been very challenging.  Nonetheless, it arguably got even more competitive for Americans in this quadrennial with the recent overhaul of the US Sailing Olympic Trials.  Rather than a single, winner-take-all regatta for each class of boat like it has been in the past, the 2012 trials process was converted to a formula based on athletes' results in two major international events.  Perth was the second and final of these events while the first was an event back in June in Weymouth, England, at the same site as the Olympics will be raced.

The thinking behind this qualification process change was two-fold.  For one, selecting teams based on results at more than one event should provide a better statistical representation of the most qualified teams.  Secondly, utilizing international regattas with foreign competition rather than a domestic, Americans-only regatta provides a more realistic, Olympic-like racing environment for the trials. 

McNay, who is returning to the Olympics for his second go-around, has now been successful in both trials formats.  He and his crew, Graham Biehl from San Diego, CA, have been sailing together since McNay's graduation in 2005.  "Team MB," as they have dubbed themselves, finished 13th at the ISAF Worlds in Perth which was good enough to qualify the US for an Olympic berth in the men's 470 class as well as secure the team as the specific US representative in the class. 

While he was an undergraduate, McNay helped to put a struggling Yale Varsity Sailing Team on the map.  He was a three-time ICSA All-American skipper and since his time the team has consistently been ranked amongst the top teams in the nation. 

There is no doubt that qualifying to become a two-time Olympian is an exciting achievement; however, it is probably tough for McNay to be more excited than Lihan who just qualified for her first Olympic appearance.  While McNay and his crew had the experience advantage in the US men's 470 trials, such was not the case for Lihan and her teammate, Amanda Clark.  Their victory in the US women's 470 trials was an underdog success story. 

Lihan (crew) and Clark (skipper), "Team GoSail," faced tough competition from another team with Bulldog representation.  Isabelle Kinsolving-Farrar '02 and her skipper Erin Maxwell were the 2008 Women's 470 World Champions and they were leading Team GoSail in this year's trials standings prior to Perth.  Not to mention, Kinsolving-Farrar was the 470 crew representative for the US at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.  Nonetheless, Lihan and Clark had a good enough finish last week at the ISAF Worlds to catch up to their competition in the trials standings and win the qualification spot on a tie-breaker. 

While such an upset is surely exhilarating for Lihan and her skipper, it is no doubt devastating for their friendly competition.  The two teams have trained and traveled the campaign trail together over the past 18 months.  That said, Kinsolving-Farrar would doubtlessly tell you that, if it was going to be anyone, she is at least happy to have been beaten by a fellow Yalie.  In the battle for the women's 470 Olympic spot, specifically the crew position, Yale was going to be a winner either way.  This time around Lihan won the dogfight (the Bulldog fight to be exact). 

Considering the fact that she graduated a mere 19 months ago, Lihan's Olympic qualification is an exceptional feat.  In the article previewing the ISAF Worlds, a major point of focus was the adversity of time for American sailors.  However, female Yale sailors seem to be rather un-phased by the time obstacle.  Kinsolving-Farrar also went to the Olympics within two years after graduation. 

Ironically, both Lihan and Kinsolving-Farrar were All-American skippers while sailing in college.  Unlike Kinsolving-Farrar though, Lihan didn't step foot in the front of the 470 until after graduating. 

Crewing in the 470 is debatably one of the most challenging skills in the sport.  It requires an athlete to be extremely physically refined in order to control a high performance boat with both trapeze and spinnaker.  Thus, although Lihan was always a good sailor, she has displayed an extraordinarily steep learning curve in adapting to a new discipline.

With the grueling and anxious qualification process behind them, McNay and Lihan can now spend the next eight months fully concentrated on having peak performances at the Olympic Games this summer.  In 2012 they will compete for Olympic glory, "for God, for country, for Yale."  Now that they are officially on their way to representing at the Olympics, the proud motto of their alma mater was never more appropriate.   

Report filed by Chris Segerblom '14, Yale Sports Publicity