Sunday, October 13, 2013

La Rochelle: Eurosaf French Olympic Week

La Rochelle can be summed up by the following:  Hard to put together.  Everything from the logistics to the racing were just a bit complicated - although in the end, these complications made the entire experience worthwhile.

I had planned on doing La Rochelle for a few months.  However, a week before we were due to leave, my training partner suddenly couldn't make the event, and the accommodation we found fell through.  We were left scrambling to find a solution for a new coaching partner to share costs, accommodation, and a decision on a coach boat.  In the end, we drove from Cadiz with a few extra sailors on board, and towing a boat.  I finalized new accommodation the day before we arrived, in what turned out to be the best house ever - 3 bedrooms, next to the water, 5 minute walk to the venue, and most importantly, Internet!

I expected La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, to be quite cold and rainy, especially in November.  However, we were lucky enough to have some sun the first few days of training, all very light wind.
Ah, Indian summer!
(All photos by Aleksandra Blinnikka)
 The Indian summer days soon were vanquished by a cold front, and the northerly, offshore wind came in strong and gusty.  We even had some rainy, light wind races that were even colder.
C-c-c-old. Heading out to the course
Because the wind was so shifty, racing was quite interesting and tactical, even in planing conditions.  The women's fleet was small but quality, 26 boards including a group of good French sailors, and a number of other top competitors from Poland, Italy, Spain, Germany, New Zealand, and Great Britain.  The conditions allowed me to work on some of the weaker aspects of my technique, and actually experience the importance of the tactical lessons of the last few months. 

Like in Santander, most of my mistakes were positioning-related.  Because the wind was so crazy, it was easy to lose touch with the front group of girls if one made a mistake.  One or two signficant mistakes per race, and an 8th or 9th place could easily turn into a 12th or 13th.  My average finishes were around 9-14, but I did manage to fulfill my potential going into the event with a 3rd in the final race of the series, winning the start and the first upwind.  I was most pleased that I was starting extremely well without a single OCS, and that I was racing, really racing with good speed; not worrying about technique, but thinking strategically and tactically.  I had course awareness and and a lot of feel for what was happening during the race.  
Girls' planing start
 This event made me really appreciate the coaching I received over the last few months.  Racing is coming together for me, and a jump up the fleet is beginning to happen.  During training races, I am consistently finishing with the top girls, and my light wind performance has improved hugely.  Now I have to translate that to actual regatta. 
The next month holds a trip home, more fund raising, and hopefully a trip to Cape Hatteras for some wave and flatwater shortboarding! 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pre-Worlds Regatta, Santander, Spain

In 2014, the ISAF Combined World Championships, the most significant international qualifying regattas for the 2016 Olympics, will be held in Santander, Spain.  Last week, we competed in the Santander Pre-Worlds in preparation for the 2014 event.  Although my focus for the event was training tactics, the venue's conditions and fleet quality held surprises that made experiencing the racing in Santander a very valuable experience in relation to next year.

All photos by Aleksandra Blinnikka
 In partial preparation, I trained in Cadiz for two weeks leading up to the event with a top Spanish sailor, Blanca Manchon.  When discussing the venue, which she is familiar with, we expected flat water and light wind.  However, Santander proved to be a tricky place with many factors affecting the various race courses.

The geography of Santander consists of a narrow bay with a channel opening into the Atlantic Ocean.  Because the bay inside is too narrow for more than one racecourse, most of the courses were located outside on the ocean, a long tow in light wind.  Similar to the Weymouth events last year, we changed courses daily on a total of three different courses.  On each of these courses, the current varied greatly, and coves and cliffs made the wind gusty and shifty.  On top of these physical features of the courses, the swell was also large and unusually spaced.  It made for a slightly different pumping style especially on the downwind leg, and also made a few sailors a bit green! 

We pumped the entire event - not one race was held in fully planing conditions.  We saw two different types of breeze, one being sea breeze, and the other being cloud-driven wind from rain cells.  Both were somewhat unpredictable.  During one rainy day, we stayed on the water six hours while the wind shifted direction.  We had three races in three different wind conditions! 

Santander's conditions were special, but we also had a special fleet competing. Although the number was small (23), countries sent their very top sailors and the quality was high.  Many of the girls were highly prepared, almost to the degree of a World Championships.

Women's podium:  1,Charline Picon (FRA); 2, Bryony Shaw (GBR); 3, Blanca Manchon (ESP)
 I had a tough event, but I also took in some valuable lessons.  The event was one of those where suddenly a light is turned on.  I worked on tactical positioning within the fleet, and I finally understood the mistakes I was making.  I also had the opportunity to work on light wind technique, especially  pumping downwind in the swell.  During my last race, I was well positioned enough and aware of wind shifts on the course that I was able to jump from mid-fleet to 4th position. 

 Coach Curro Manchon and I

The next month in Europe holds more training in Cadiz and another Eurosaf regatta in La Rochelle, France.  I am looking forward to applying lessons learned in Santander to achieve a good result in La Rochelle.  Let's hope the Atlantic coast of France in October actually won't be as cold as I think it will!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Progress: RS:X European Championships

I spent three weeks in Brest, France, training for and competing in the RS:X European Championships. This event had over 200 entries in both the senior, youth, and RS-One event, making it the biggest and most competitive event this year.  Brest is a challenging venue, with high cliffs, strong tidal current, and gusty, shifty wind.  It's also situated on a peninsula that juts far out into the Atlantic, which makes the weather very UK-like:  chilly and rainy.  I'm not sure that Brest has a "classic" condition, but I saw just about every wind direction and strength during my time there. 

 Photo: Vincenzo Baglione
I continued work with my newest coach, Curro Manchon from Spain, and his sister Blanca, who is an excellent and experienced sailor.  We did a training camp a week before the event, and because the event was so big, we had a really large, competent fleet of youth and senior sailors to race with. This, the challenging wind conditions, and the strong current made this training camp a very valuable experience.

Going into the event, I had a bad first day in planing conditions, which are currently a strength.  I knew I needed to turn things around, and after that I was able to jump back up the fleet with a few top-10 finishes.  I am still inconsistent in my finishes, but I now have the speed and am rapidly gaining the tactical knowledge to get there.  The simplest tactics always are the most successful.  In my top races, I had a clean start and went to the side I thought was the best with good speed.  I covered the fleet and stayed in the best pressure.  As long as I maintained speed, staying in the front was relatively simple!

After the first day, the wind dropped off and we competed through a few rainy, gusty days.  The women's fleet raced together for the first two days in a qualifying round.  After the lay day, we experienced a dramatic change in the weather, as it finally became summer in Brest.  The sun came out, the wind died, and we waited until 7 pm to race!  The remaining few days weren't much better, although the race committee continued to race us in the light conditions. 

 Photo: Vincenzo Baglione

Again, sailors were put through a nonsensical scoring format courtesy of the RS:X Class.  After the qualifying series, the fleet was split asymmetrically into a group from 1-26, and 26-42.  The points were condensed to placement, with only one point separating sailors.  After the final series, the scores were condensed again, and the organizers held one final race.  Like sailors have seen again and again this year, this format doesn't reward consistent finishes - it makes competition more unfair and confusing.  Competitors themselves didn't know what would happen with the scoring until the race committee announced it. 

  Photo: Vincenzo Baglione
 Regardless of scoring, my event was a success.  With a finish of 14th place, I am racing with the best.  Once I minimize my mistakes, I will jump up the fleet.   I left feeling confident about my progress, knowing exactly what my mistakes were, and how I can keep moving forward.  I was also very happy to see my training partner Blanca Manchon take the bronze medal!

  Blanca and Curro celebrating. 
Photo: Vincenzo Baglione
 I am now in New York aggressively pursuing fund raising opportunities.  I have reached a critical point where without funding, I will be unable to continue campaigning.  I am optimistic about my chances here and hope to have some good news to report once I return to Annapolis next week.

RS:X Europeans Gallery

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Garda Olympic Week and the Delta Lloyd Regatta

During the last few weeks, I competed in two Eurosaf (European Cup) events, the Garda Olympic Week at Lake Garda, Italy, and the Delta Lloyd Regatta in Medemblik, Netherlands.  Both events were "filler" for the season, as my peak was the World Cup events earlier this spring.  However, I used the events to determine the next steps for my racing, and to attempt to win funding for next year.

Because the Garda Olympic Week and Delta Lloyd Regatta aren't World Cup events, the number of races and format were slightly different, but were still a spinoff of ISAF's World Cup test format.  The boards were scheduled to race 17 races over 5 days, meaning 4 races per day and one medal race on the final day.  Although the number of races was high, the courses were a bit shorter and during both events, conditions permitted four races per day to happen easily.

Although the regattas progressed as planned, with 3-4 races per day and only one day of waiting for wind in Lake Garda, ISAF's new scoring system again proved itself to be flawed.  At the Garda Olympic Week, despite winning 10 out of the 14 series races, British sailor Bryony Shaw finished in second place due to the "carry forward" scoring between the race series and the medal race.  In the men's fleet during the Delta Lloyd Regatta, Dorian van Risselberghe, the 2012 Gold medalist, again won the majority of the races.  Although he was in first going into the medal race, a poor finish removed him from the podium altogether.

By using placement as points and condensing the scoring so there is only one point between each sailor, ISAF's new format simply does not reward consistency of results during the regatta series.  What, then, is the point of trying to complete 16 races in four days before the medal race?  The number of races simply is too many for no payoff in points whatsoever in the medal race - the same result can be had after three or four races.  The priority for any event should be to promote fair competition for all sailors, and easy comprehension of scoring for spectators.  Weighting one race more heavily than all the rest doesn't reward consistency of finishes and "quality" sailing.

As for my personal experience, I underperformed at each event.  However, it is no longer a mystery to me why.  I worked with a Spanish coach during Medemblik, and essentially, a new door is going to open for me soon in terms of tactics.  The speed I developed this winter is pretty good, but I have been making errors I wasn't aware of.  My new homework is to accelerate learning this element of competition.

I did enjoy aspects of the competiton.  I liked the three four shorter races because there was room for less error, and thus mistakes were more visible.  Lake Garda is truly a windsurfer's paradise, and we had warm, sunny weather while we were there, which made for good wind and great racing.  Medemblik was windy and choppy, but very cold!  Temperatures were in the high 40s/low 50s with plenty of rain, and one morning I arrived to find ice covering my equipment.  Although it was the coldest event I've ever been to, I learned a lot about tactics!

I'm now back in Maryland for a short break before our European Championships in Brest, France.  I am looking forward to this next event as tactical training and a chance to win additional funding.  Brest is a tricky spot and will be a great opportunity to learn.

Friday, May 3, 2013

French Olympic Week

The south of France is home to my favorite regatta on the World Cup and European circuit, the French Olympic Week.  This year marks the 8th time I've competed in this event, and it remains one of the most popular on the circuit for all the sailors.  The French Olympic Week is full of youth teams,  and having a group of skilled European youth sailors create a big fleet is a perfect opportunity to try new tactics or make sure I am consistently executing the skills I  already know.  

Making a move at the windward mark in light air (Photo by Mick Knive Anderson)

I used this event to back up Palma, and it was a good gauge for my fitness and identifying small details of racing that I need to improve.  It was a test of pulling all the elements of my game together and gave me a number of key areas to focus on for the next 6 months.  My next target in the World Cup is Sail Melbourne, the first regatta of the 2014 series - it's hard to believe most of the 2013 series is over already! 
From racing the World Cup series, my ISAF ranking is now 11th, which I am happy about despite my lack of participation early in the series.  I elected not to do Miami for financial and training reasons, foregoing ranking points as well as making the 2013 US Sailing Team.  However, this allowed me to take advantage of training in Australia with the focus of improving speed and overall performance.  Now I know I made the right choice, and I am happy with my sailing over the last 6 months and that my world ranking reflects this progress.

 In France, it was also great to see the US Sailing Team's interest in my personal program and have the team leaders take time to meet with me and discuss our plans going forward.  Thanks to Josh Adams and Charlie McKee for making the team a welcoming environment.

I am currently in Italy at a training center for athletes, where I am working on recovery and physical training before the next events.  Although there are no more World Cup regattas this year in Europe, the Eurosaf cup is still taking place and I will compete at Lake Garda, Italy, and Medemblik, Netherlands before taking a break at home.  After these events, I will have a long list of skills to focus on training during the later summer and fall.  

This year more than ever, money is a limiting factor in my improvement.  My 2012 major investment in coaching and a focused program is beginning to pay off in results.  I have been fortunate this winter and spring to be able to continue to train and compete on the circuit, but I continue to be stretched to the limit.  The financial results of this year will be a major indicator of whether I can continue to have the level of support that I need to potentially medal at the 2016 Olympics.  I am on my way up, and would like to finish my climb to the top.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Trofeo Princesa Sofia: World Cup Success

Progress in Olympic sailing is all about making the right training choices.  For the past few months in Australia, my focus has been on getting faster in all conditions.  Speed is king at any event. Following a few simple rules, refined by lots of practice and memorizing feel in all different conditions, is what it takes to get faster and keep getting faster.  Putting speed into perspective and attaining the correct focus to maintain speed gave me a 9th place finish in Palma.  Combining speed with elements of racing learned over the past year, plus a consistent coaching focus, is what brings success to any Olympic-class sailor.

Palma gave us a variety of challenging conditions.  From an exhausting 30 knot day with 2 meter swell, to very light wind, we had two days of non planing racing and four days of planing.  Challenging conditions were added to by ISAF's testing of a new Olympic format.  Similar to the last Olympic format, the regatta was divided into a qualifying series, final series, and medal races.  However, sailors' scores from the qualifying series were not carried over to the final series - but sailors' places were carried over instead of scores.  Therefore a sailor scored 10th entered the final series with 10 points, and all sailors had the "gaps" reduced in their scores to only one point.  Essentially, the final series was the beginning of a new regatta entirely, with consistency and good finishes in the qualifying series not rewarded.  An additional race was added to the final series for a total of 5 races, and two medal races were held for double points each.  All in all it was six days of really intense racing, extra races, and two high-stakes medal races instead of one.

Most sailors, including myself, were unsatisfied with this format.  Like the Miami OCR, it didn't reward consistency in good finishes, a hallmark of successful sailors.  There was no benefit in rewarding lower-ranked sailors by erasing their scores from the qualifying series, and it made the scoring harder to understand for spectators.  Two medal races were acceptable and interesting, but double points scoring became senseless.  Luckily, ISAF is getting feedback from all the competitors!  There was nothing wrong with the previous format and scoring and hopefully ISAF will decide on a similar solution.

We are now training in Hyeres in preparation for the next World Cup, the French Olympic Week.  We have had perfect French springtime weather with lots of sun and wind, and the venue is already filling with sailors.  It is another opportunity to keep building on the work I did this winter and another chance for a good finish.  I'm looking forward to making progress at the French Olympic Week.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tough Choices

Being subject to changing circumstance is a normal part of the campaign trail for any aspiring Olympic sailor. The uncertainty of the RS:X class being put back in the Olympics, and the new (and welcomed) change in the sailing team leadership created uncertainty in the state of my post-Olympic campaign.  Especially in the first year of a new quadrennial, funding is critical but difficult to secure; this is the situation for me this winter.  After five years of support, my main sponsor has decided not to renew for my Rio campaign.

While waiting for the ISAF decision on either the RS:X windsurfer or kiteboarding for Rio, I was given a trip to Australia to train in a prime location, Brisbane, where Southern Hemisphere summer weather brings sun, heat, and windy conditions.  It was a great offer and I took it, arriving in Brisbane in November.  In November and December, I trained full time with Jo Sterling, an Australian sailor, and top Italian sailor Flavia Tartaglini in Brisbane and Sydney.  I tried to implement this winter plan without knowing what my funding would be; I tried to forge ahead by doing what I thought I should do to make the most of my training time in Australia without knowing exactly would happen to me this winter.

With a last minute decision to include the RS:X in the Miami OCR World Cup, the sole event to qualify for the 2013 US Sailing team, I had a tough choice to make about how to get the most value from my very limited resources.  Attending the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta was an opportunity to gain a spot on the US Sailing Team, but I would lose valuable training and development time, not to mention exhausting my funds.  The stresses of travel and a 14-hour time change on short notice versus the opportunity for me to improve my overall speed and technique while working with a familiar coach was how I saw the choice. For me, staying in Australia was the better option.  Under the new US Sailing leadership, I, and any other US athlete, still have the same opportunity to earn funding and use American coaching resources - a new attitude of inclusiveness I really appreciate.  But without any significant funding available this year, and our international results determining our 2014 funding, I am targeting top finishes in Europe as my goal this year.  My current training camp here in Brisbane is preparing me for the European season.

After three and a half months of training in the consistent Brisbane sea breeze, and 10 days more to go until our coach returns to Poland, I can say that I am really happy with the way the training is going.  With two long sessions daily, we have plenty of opportunity to develop speed in all conditions, and I've had the chance to perfect my board handling.  Adding in some racing has also been a great opportunity to develop focus, consistency, and the mental side of the sport.  The training has been great preparation and a confidence-builder for the upcoming European season, and I'm looking forward to seeing how well I will race this spring.  My greatest challenge now is again growing my support base in order to properly campaign.  I've got a great plan in place but it takes the proper resources to make it happen. All I know is that competing in this sport at an Olympic level will never be easy.  I've come to a point where I know for certain I have a chance to make a top finish at the next Olympics.  It's just a matter of putting myself there and once again, I'll give it my all.