They’ve tested the waters of Qingdao, China, and now they’ll check in with their strongest rivals to represent America there in 2008 as the month of US Sailing Olympic Pre-Trials continues at three Southern California venues Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Gold medalists Andy Horton and crew Brad Nichol in Star, fifth-place Dalton Bergan and crew Zack Maxam in 49er and sixth-place Zach Railey in Finn were the top U.S. finishers in their classes in August’s pre-Olympic test event at Qingdao—officially, the Good Luck Beijing Qingdao International Regatta—but they aren’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s hard to say that there’s ever going to be a [Star] favorite with the group of people that will be at the qualifier next year,” Horton said.
The Stars will be hosted by California Yacht Club at Marina del Rey, the Finns by Newport Harbor YC off Newport Beach and the 49ers by Southwestern YC off San Diego. Those regattas are among eight classes grouped as US Olympic Trials West events that opened with last week’s Tornado class pre-trials. Racing will start at noon each day, conditions permitting.
A year from now the same venues will host the formal Olympic Trials to select the one boat in 8 of the 11 classes that will represent the United States at the Olympics in 2008.
Railey (pictured left), of Clearwater, Fla., is a relatively new player in the fleet of 40 Finns at Newport Beach sprinkled with venerable competitors like Andrew Kern, Darrell Peck, Geoff Ewenson, Brad Nieuwstad and Henry Sprague, but none has had a more intense campaign.
“The last year has been going pretty well for me,” he said. “I just spent five months over in Europe, and I learned an awful lot about myself and sailing the Finn.”
Railey, ranked No. 13 by ISAF, is the top American in the Finn class. A lack of European competition because of the time and expense involved has handicapped Americans in international competition in recent years, but there will be a flip side early next year when Finn sailors converge in Railey’s hometown for four months of informal training.
“It’s going to be fantastic for the U.S. sailors not to have to travel all the way [to Europe] for this,” Railey said.
Bergan, Seattle, and Maxam, Coronado, Calif., are ranked 12th by ISAF. After campaigning through Europe in a van they finished a close second to Tim Wadlow and crew Pete Spaulding in the 2004 Olympic Trials, and they have a new perspective this time around.
Bergan, a mechanical engineer, said he is “currently holding down a fulltime job, and Zach and I both got married in the last couple of months.”
Bergan’s bride is Lindsay Buchan, daughter and granddaughter of two Olympic gold medalists: Carl and Bill, respectively. Whether he’ll follow their lead remains to be seen, but from years of sailing in San Diego he and Maxam should feel right at home if they win the ticket to Qingdao, which is already notorious for light wind, strong current and a big swell.
“It’s a very unique place to sail,” Bergan said, “and conditions in San Diego are pretty darn similar. As an Olympic Trials location it definitely matches [the Olympic venue].”
Spaulding, of Lafayette, Ind., now sails as crew for Morgan Larson of Capitola, Calif., who was a close second to Jonathan and Charlie McKee of Seattle in the 2000 U.S. Trials. Wadlow, of Beverly, Mass., took some time off after they finished fifth at Athens in 2004 and has returned with a new crew, Christopher Rast of Wake Forest, N.C.
Horton, 31, Shelburne, Vt., and Nichol, 27, Miami Beach, have been sailing together only two years this month and are ranked only 22nd by ISAF, behind five other American teams led by No. 2 George Szabo and Eric Monroe of San Diego. But their victory at Qingdao followed by a fourth-place finish as the top Americans in the recent Star Worlds at San Francisco places them among the contenders for the U.S. Olympic slot.
“We’ve put in a lot of effort the last two years and it’s starting to come together,” Nichol said, noting that the class’s old guard has a fight on its hands now. The New Zealanders who won the Worlds had sailed a Star only 10 months.
“But they put in more time in the boat than anyone else in the class,” Nichol said. “That’s what you’re seeing with these new names at the top of the leader board. John Dane and Austin Sperry are putting in tons of time. This week the only two teams that were here [in Marina del Rey preparing] last Saturday were Andy and me and John and Austin.”
As for four-time Olympian and triple medalist Mark Reynolds and the 2004 U.S. rep, Paul Cayard, Horton said, “Mark doesn’t do a full-blown campaign like he used to, but I have no doubts those guys will be there at the end of the day. They’re awesome. They’re just not trying hard right now.”
Nichol said, “No matter what the situation is, they’ve seen it before in a Star boat. Andy and I know how to make a boat go fast, but we need the time together in a Star to be ready for anything.”
The Pre-Trials spectacle will finish Oct. 26-29 with four days of racing for the men’s and women’s 470s at the US Sailing Center in Long Beach and the men’s and women’s RS:X—the new Olympic sailboard—just down the street at Alamitos Bay YC.
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