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Sailing’s an Olympic sport you can grow old in

2008 September 26
We were sprawled on the couch watching the Olympic Games, I with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk balanced on my tummy. It was the swimming and gymnastics events, and there was nothing covert about the way she was eyeing the washboard stomachs of the men.

It occurred to me that, with a washboard stomach, I could balance the milk and cookies more securely, and then I realized that there just might be something contradictory about the concept.

So I was surprised when she turned to me and said, "You're so lucky."

"Whmmpf?" I said, my mouth triple-stuffed with double-stuffed Oreos.
"You were so lucky that your Olympic sport was sailing," she said. "Look at these guys … they have no future life after the Olympics."

"Sure they do," I argued. "Guys like Phelps will be on Wheaties boxes and the Jay Leno show and then they'll do inspirational speeches to salesmen on how to set goals. And, of course, they'll be making a gazillion dollars from Speedo for wearing their suits."

"No, I mean in their sport. It's over. They're done. No more."

The more I considered her notion, the more I realized she was right.

I've been involved in the Olympics for … hmm, let's see. Six minus … About 44 years, or 11 Olympiads. First, I crewed in the Olympic Trials, then I raced Olympic class boats, then I covered the Olympics as a journalist and, more recently, I've sprawled on the couch watching friends sail in the Olympics.

The fact is that sailing, unlike the vast majority of Olympic sports, is one that you can continue to enjoy for the rest of your life. You can take your spouse and your kids for a daysail or you can charter a boat for a week's vacation. You can, like the rest of us non-Olympic hackers, pour money into your pride and joy that sits in the marina. You have a sport that is perhaps not useful, but certainly ageless and always rewarding.

I first got a taste of the Olympics in 1964, crewing on a Dragon in the Olympic Trials. This was long before modern sports training made a four-year (or eight-year) program mandatory for a shot at an Olympic medal.

In those days, it was just a bunch of guys who happened to sail Olympic class boats and who showed up for one week to see who was going to the Olympics. Sure, we used to spend several months putting in extra weekends on the water to hone our skills, but it wasn't the 24/7/365 regime that marks even a minimum effort today. None of our crew had ever seen the inside of a gym, let alone made any effort at fitness. A sports nutritionist would faint at our eating habits, which ran heavily toward beer and pizza.

Actually, training for that first Trials wasn't even several months. I went into the Dragon Olympic Trials as the bowman after only a few weekends of sailing with this crew. We didn't win, of course, but I'm proud of that Olympic plaque on my wall.

Sailing is a sport that is, for the most part, ageless. Strapping on a Finn or a 49er or a Laser in the Olympics may be for those with perfectly carved physiques and a youthful pain tolerance, but even older guys have their moments.

In 1968, when current America's Cup holder and megalomaniac Ernesto Bertarelli was still toddling around in diapers, Swiss sailor Louis Noverraz took a Olympic silver medal in the 5.5-Meter class in Mexico at the age of 66.

My friend, John Dane, of course, has given all of us old guys a shot of adrenalin just by making the Olympic Team and, as I write this, he's in contention for a medal at 58 years old.
I know with some certainty that when John Dane returns from China, with or without a medal, he's not going to stop sailing. He may not race a Star or put in hours in the gym or spend every spare moment on the water training, but I'm sure he'll continue to race. More important, he's not just going to walk away from sailing and, knowing John, he'll sail in club races just for fun.

But Phelps? Is he going to invite his girlfriend to join him at the pool for a few 100-meter laps? Not likely. The same thing applies to many of the Olympic sports.

Will the Olympic medalist in shotput spend his weekends at the park, throwing a little lead around with his family? Gymnasts? Pole vaulters? Weightlifters? Sprinters?

Not likely.

How about wrestlers? "Hey, hon, how about two out of three falls before 'Jeopardy'?"

Sure, there are other sports that you can enjoy for a lifetime, like badminton or the equestrian disciplines or even table tennis. But how many kids really want to play ping pong with a dad who holds the Olympic medal?

And that's one of the pleasures of sailing, too. You have a chance to beat the champions. There aren't a lot of occasions, but I remember several where I've had the exhilaration of looking back as I cross the finish line to see an Olympic medalist behind me. On the water, with the vagaries of wind and current and sails, we all have the opportunity to triumph against the best. That's one of the things that keeps a good one-design class thriving: the chance to race against the best and win.

In spite of the cookies and milk, I could go out and sail tomorrow and, in fact, I just might. Sailing is one of the few sports where you can do it right up to the point where you fall off the perch.

I settled back on the couch with a new stack of Oreos. Who cared about those carved pecs or washboard abs.

I'm a sailor.