The Olympics features 42 sports disciplines and thousands of athletes representing their home countries. And yet, some names come up again and again, hoarding heat qualifications in multiple events — like those assholes in your major who always manage to get the last spot in that seminar everyone wants to take.
So, too, does that pattern emerge at Yale. Though Yale athletics has broadly excelled, and holds a trophy room with a plethora of names, one sport seems to outshine some others — particularly when it comes to sending former Bulldogs to the once-in-every-four-years showcase of the world’s best athletes.
Sailing. It seems straightforward, inherent to human nature, even primitive. Before there were cars, planes and bikes, there were boats. And yet the sport’s rules and intricacies remain elusive to many, perhaps even this sports writer, who is for the first time attempting to fully grasp the particulars of the sport.
And this exploration uncovered another surprise — Yale’s sailors are good. Really, really good.
HOW THE SPORT WORKS
In college sailing, each boat carries two sailors: one skipper, one crew. The skipper drives, and controls the boat’s main source of power, the mainsail. The crew controls the small, front sail called a jib, and uses his or her body weight to flatten the boat during heavy winds. While the skipper makes tactical decisions along the race course, much of the work falls to the crew, as even the smallest shift in body weight can drastically affect racing outcomes.
At regattas, teams can participate in two types of events: fleet or team racing. In the former, individual boats race along a set course, while in the latter, two teams of three boats compete directly against each other, ultimately facing up against all other teams in the event.
The Olympics features the same boat configuration, with one skipper and crew, while some sailors also go solo. The games include men’s, women’s and one mixed event, and sailors often utilize different boat models in competition, but the nitty-gritty rules sometimes differ from collegiate racing.
For example, one of the most popular Olympic events for former Bulldogs is the 470. This event, a type of team racing, features both a women’s and men’s event; each series totals 10 races, and awards points based on the teams’ placing, with the worst result discarded. At the series’ end, the top 10 boats qualify for medal competition.
Without that background, it would be impossible to grasp Stu McNay’s ’05 path through Yale, or just what it meant when he and his partner Dave Hughes came in fourth at the men’s 470 event this past summer in Rio.
There, the two sailors were able to advance to the final race. Though they missed out on medaling, McNay and Hughes placed second in the final race, bringing a spotlight to both the U.S. and the Yale name.
When treading the waters in Rio, McNay became one of the most recent Bulldogs to compete in the Olympics and to represent their country in the waters.
HOW THEY STARTED
But long before former Yalies were traveling to big-name competitions such as the 49er World Championships and the Olympics, they raced in little-known New England regattas starting as early as the late 19th century,
Known fondly to its sailors as “yic-yic,” the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club was founded in 1881 and became the oldest collegiate sailing club in the country, the first of the many dozens that would later spur around the country.
Primarily because of its close proximity to the water and other clubs of high caliber, the Northeast soon became a collegiate sailing hub, and the Yale team traveled throughout the region to compete. Still, the club was only that — a club. It would not become a varsity sport until 2002, when an alumni gift funded the move.
The first Bulldogs to compete at the games in the 1952 Olympics had only sailed with yic-yic before. And Yale sailing continued in this vein for a number of years, with Bulldogs competing in international and notable national competitions even before the team became a varsity sport.
And yet, despite 2002’s status upgrade, the new varsity title does not appear to have changed the team’s spirit by much.
“I wouldn’t say we try to produce Olympians or that our team operates any differently because of that,” sailor Nic Baird ’19 said. “We just happen to have a lot more fun sailing and enjoy the sport more than most other teams, and our coaching and team environment plays a huge role in that, so many people want to continue competing after college. We just try to do the best we can at what’s in front of us. The rest comes later.”
That has not kept the team or its former members from continued success. In addition to McNay, two other former Yale sailors competed in Rio this summer. Thomas Barrows ’10 and Joe Morris ’12 competed together in the men’s 49er event, finishing 19th overall to not advance past the preliminary races.
Only one other Ivy had sailors in Rio — Brown University, who was represented by lone competitor Louisa Chafee.
Partially, success spurs more success. In an interview with the News in July, Morris referenced Yale’s history of sailors who have excelled on the collegiate and professional stages.
“There’s this legacy, where if you love it enough and work hard at it, you can do whatever you want,” Morris said. “Knowing they’ve been there and done that was pretty inspirational for Thomas and I. We felt like we wanted to live up to the legacy of Yale sailing, especially in Olympic sailing.”
McNay spoke similarly of Yale’s coed sailing head coach in an interview with the News in July. Because coach Zachary Leonard ’89 has “Olympic-level experience” both as a competitor and a coach, McNay said, he can shrewdly guide his athletes.
SHINING AT HOME
Though the games inevitably receive higher viewership than other regattas around the U.S., the Bulldogs have succeeded at home, too: The collegiate stage is what later springboards sailors into international competition.
This past season, the Bulldogs competed in a total of 55 regattas between the coed and women’s sailing teams, earning berths to three national championships — two for the coed team, and one for the women’s.
At this May’s national championships in San Diego, the Bulldogs took home one national championship and two other top-five finishes. Though it represents a drop from last year, when the Bulldogs swept all three championships, the results represented the best overall finish of any collegiate program.
Baird said that many Yale sailors strive to compete at the same level as the most successful alumni, while others simply learn from them. He said they are “always helping,” from coaching to simply setting an example.
His fellow Olympian spoke in the same light.
“[We are] kind of a grass-roots team that just happened to be really good,” Morris said. “Wasn’t like other programs that [are] totally supported. That aspect prepares you well for Olympic sailing.”