Last week, sailor and Yale alumnus Stu McNay ’05 qualified for the 2016 Olympics, joining fellow Elis Thomas Barrows ’10 and Joseph Morris ’12 as members of the U.S. sailing team competing in Rio this summer.
McNay, sailing with crew Dave Hughes, secured his qualification with a bronze-medal finish at the 470 Class European Championship held in Spain from April 7 to 12. He is now a third-time Olympian, having competed in both 2008 and 2012. Barrows, who qualified in February, also competed in 2008. After qualifications this year, Morris is the newest in a line of 11 Yale sailors who have found themselves Olympic-bound since 1964.
“The unique thing [about Yale sailing] is the people involved and their attitudes towards achievement and success and commitment to a successful process,” McNay said. “No matter what level of achievement you have prior to your involvement in the program, you quickly become a lot better for all those reasons.”
Three Eli sailors have claimed a total of five Olympic medals, with Jonathan McKee ’83 holding the sole gold medal after winning the Flying Dutchman class in the ’84 Games. McKee followed up his victorious ’84 campaign in 2000, nabbing a bronze medal in the 49er class, the same class in which Barrows and Morris will be competing this summer.
J.J. Fetter ’85 also attended the Olympic games twice, claiming medals both times with a bronze in 1992 and silver in 2000, competing in women’s 470 class both times. Stephen Benjamin ’78 took silver in the 1984 Games in men’s 470s. Joining McKee and Benjamin in the 1984 Games was Eric Tulla ’70, who ranked 19th.
Other notable Eli Olympic results include fourth place from Louise Van Voorhis ’90 in the 1996 Games, and fifth from Isabelle Kinsolving ’02 in the 2004 Games. Michael Schoettle ’54 is also a Yale alumnus who claimed gold, though he crewed for the winning team in 1952 prior to attending the University.
A combination of factors contribute to Yale’s successful sailing program said head coach Zachary Leonard, who has overseen just under half of Yale’s Olympic sailors since he began coaching in 2000. Leonard and Fetter both discussed Yale’s location as unique in its ability to produce Olympic sailors. The coast of New England is home to a number of universities with competitive sailing programs that allow for easy-access competition on the weekends, Fetter said. Furthermore, Yale’s program holds practices in an open-water area, letting competitors experience the types of conditions they would encounter in the Olympics, in turn attracting potential future Olympians to Yale as a result of its multipurpose venue. Other East Coast schools that sail in places such as the Charles River are not as applicable to the type of sailing faced in the Olympics, Leonard said.
Fetter was attracted to Yale’s program in large part due to Dave Perry ’77, who brought top sailors from around the country to the University, despite the fact that sailing was only a club sport at the time. Though during Fetter’s Yale career the University’s sailing program lacked structured coaching, she said that what Leonard and assistant coach Bill Healy have since accomplished with Yale sailing is “amazing.” For Leonard, the measure of his success as a coach is whether students are inspired to “enjoy” the sport, and are driven by their passion for sailing itself.
“The passion for them to continue the sport is so great that it makes them want to take it to the highest level,” Leonard said.
Fetter also spoke to the “success breeds success” mentality of Yale sailors who, while she was attending Yale, often trained and competed with fellow teammates who were simultaneously training for the Olympics. To sail at Yale, she said, was to be surrounded by peers who were thinking about and preparing for larger-scope competitions, providing an “expectation of top-notch boat speed, boat-handling, and strategy at every practice.”
Furthermore, both McNay and Leonard attributed the success of Yale’s sailors to the University’s mentality overall. The types of students Yale admits, Leonard said, are those who are “willing to take the less conventional path.”
“As an institution, Yale students learn how to focus on their tasks and how to achieve at a high level,” McNay said. “The standard at which you are expected to perform in any activity you take part in at the University then has carry over to all activities and all parts of life.”
The 2016 Olympic sailing competitions will begin on Aug. 5 and end on Aug. 21.