Can Kahn Plan End U.S. Medal Drought?

By Rich Roberts

For the world’s only superpower, it wasn’t like splitting with Lithuania in basketball or not even qualifying in baseball – after all, we invented those sports – but what did you think of the medal count for American Olympic sailors?

Is it, hey, weren’t our two medal successes wonderful?

As 1992 silver medalist Morgan Reeser said, “Winning a medal is only a part of the experience. The opportunity to compete against the world’s best athletes, knowing that you have given your best effort to represent yourself and your country, is still victory in the Olympic Games.”

The other view is Peggy Lee’s lament: “Is that all there is?”

Maybe we were spoiled by the glory years when we hauled off 21 medals, including five gold, in three Olympics from 1984 in Long Beach through ‘88 in Korea and ‘92 in Barcelona.

Despite an expansion in classes from seven to 11, there have been only eight U.S. medals total in the three Olympics since.

Philippe Kahn thinks there’s a problem. So does Mark Reynolds.

Kahn, French-born, but a U.S. resident since 1982, is a Santa Cruz- and Hawaii-based software developer. You can thank him for camera phones.

He sails Farr 40s, Mumm 30s, Melges 24s, and Finns and has won the Barn Door in the last two Transpacs. His solution is to fund and run a training program for U.S. prospects.

Reynolds, who runs Quantum Sails in San Diego, represented the U.S. in the Star class in four consecutive Olympics through 2000. He won two gold medals and a silver.

Otherwise, he was like the rest of us this time.

“I bought a TiVo,” he said. “I set it up to record at midnight every night. I hadn’t seen [the Olympics] from afar lately.”

What he saw was not always pretty.

“This Olympics was tough with the [wind] conditions,” he said. “It’s not a real easy place to sail.”

But the U.S. problem may run deeper than the conditions. It was no fluke that Great Britain and Brazil each won two gold medals to America’s one, and the Brits won five overall.

“All these other countries have gotten a lot better,” Reynolds said. “The United States has lost some of the depth we’ve had in the Olympic classes. We need to address that.”

Many of our top sailors aren’t interested. A serious Olympic campaign costs too much money and time.

Is Kahn’s scheme the answer?

“I think it’s great that he wants to do that,” Reynolds said.

So do I. I’ve harped before on the scarcity of wealthy sailors who give something back to the sport. Kahn and rivals with similar means have paid Reynolds and other world-class pros to sail on their boats.

Of course, that has reciprocal benefits.

But Kahn’s company LightSurf Technologies also sponsored the recent 505 Worlds in Santa Cruz, won by one of his Pegasus Racing regulars, Morgan Larson, with crew Trevor Baylis.

And, as it became apparent that the American medal count would run thin at Athens, Kahn announced his Olympic plan in general terms.

Your intrepid reporter asked him to be more specific. He was.

1) Is the program open to both men and women?

PK: Yes, both.

2) Is there a minimum or maximum age?

PK: We prefer younger team players who can be 100 percent focused and free from work and family constraints. That’s because we expect a 200 percent effort into sailing. Winning an Olympic medal nowadays is a serious effort, not a weekend hobby.

3) Apparently, you will have some kind of trials to select the people.

PK: We’ll trial the best candidates on the water and make decisions.

4) How does someone qualify for a look?

PK: We’ll select candidates through multiple filters and processes. We received over 250 inquiries in one week!

Those who will appear to be best fits with our team will come to sail with us for a few weeks, and we’ll trial not just their skills and fitness but also their fighting spirit, teamwork, and positive attitude.

4) Do they pay their own expenses?

PK: The best programs will be able to focus 100 percent on sailing. Everything will be taken care of.

5) Just so there is no misunderstanding, what is the financial arrangement for participants, once accepted? Will Pegasus Racing pay for room and board, travel costs to European events, etc.?

PK: Those selected will have to focus on one thing: sailing, fitness, and teamwork.

6) I think I understand the concept of bringing in top foreign talent to push the Americans [“the best way to help the U.S. is to help the best get better”] – but in the end, at the Olympics, isn’t there a risk of that being self-defeating?

PK: There is a greater risk in having competing national efforts focused on the trials. Here our teams push each other all through the Olympics.

The best outcome is that one wins the gold, and the other the silver. There are worse things today, like what we are experiencing in most classes except what superstars such as Kevin [Burnham]and Paul [Foerster] have done.

7) Will the program’s participants also sail as crew on Pegasus Racing’s other boats?

PK: Absolutely. Cross-training and sailing and racing every day is key to our program. That will include 505s, Melges 24s, Mumm 30s, Farr 40s, etc. However, daily they will focus on fitness and sailing in their own class.

8) Who heads the program day to day?

PK: We always have fitness coaches, nutrition coaches, sailing coaches. They head their part every day. The plan is simple: best skills, best fitness, best team, most racing, most sailing.

9) Not that it matters, but what does US SAILING think of this?

PK: I hope that they will applaud. We are synergistic, not competition. Our goal is to make better Olympic sailors.

10) Your son Samuel, a.k.a. Shark (Melges 24 Worlds winner in 2003), will be 19 in 2008. What might he sail in China?

PK: He’s interested by all sorts of sailing. He loves everything that goes fast: 49er, Tornado. But, he is also already 6 feet 1 and 165 pounds, so Finn sailing may also be in his future.

He’s got plenty of time to think about Olympic dreams, if he has any.
Some critics have seen Kahn’s plan as self-serving, although at 51, I doubt that he is aiming for the ‘08 Games in a Finn. Nor does it make sense to create his own naval academy just to corral more crew members or to get his kid into the Olympics.

I’d rather believe he is doing for his adopted country what it has been unable to do for itself.