From 5-time Olympian to new classes, U.S. sailing team looking for a comeback at Paris Games

MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. sailors going to the Paris Olympics are looking for a comeback in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Marseille — perhaps none more than veteran Stu McNay, returning for his fifth Olympics but competing in a new mixed-gender category.

The Rhode Island sailor made his Olympic debut in the Beijing Games in 2008, the last time the United States, once dominant in the sport, won a gold medal. He competed again in London in 2012, the United States’ first shutout since the 1930s; in Rio in 2016, when the U.S. was limited to one bronze; and in 2021 in Tokyo, another shutout for the Americans, who watched the well-funded British team overtake them on the all-time sailing medals table.

“As an older person, you can bring grit and determination,” McNay said after winning the team trials off Miami Beach, Florida, this year.

The father of two will turn 43 during the races in France, while cementing his place among the elite of the elite — only 0.42% of Olympians in modern history have competed in five or more Games.

But McNay has been perfecting a new trick for these Olympics. The mixed-gender 470 is a dinghy that will feature a man and a woman for the first time, instead of two athletes of the same gender.

Sailing keeps getting faster and more physical, with lighter, highly technical boats — where every ounce of weight, and its distribution, makes a difference. So mixed-gender means rethinking every aspect of the racing, from the stiffness of the mast to communication concerns, sailors say.

Many teams default to the woman at the helm, a more strategic position that involves defining the course by constantly checking other boats and the compass, and the man trapezing as crew, for more power at the sails and more control on how the boat hits the waves.

That’s the configuration for Britain’s 470 team, which won silver at this year’s world championships and also features an Olympics veteran in Chris Grube, who competed in the Rio and Tokyo Games, with Vita Heathcote at the helm.

But the current world champions are changing the dynamic; Spain’s Jordi Xammar will be at the helm and Nora Brugman, a dual-citizen who campaigned to sail for the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics, will be his crew.

“It's really an experience for life, that teaches you a lot as a person,” said Xammar, who won a bronze medal in the men's 470 at the last Games.

This summer, there will be four men’s sailing categories, four women’s, and two mixed; the 470 and the Nacra 17, a catamaran that became the first Olympic mixed-gender boat at the Rio Games.

“It gives me the chills" that these Olympics will be the first allowing men and women sailors equal medal opportunities, said Lara Dallman-Weiss, 35, who competed in the women’s 470 in the Tokyo Games and is going to be McNay's crew for Paris.

Dallman-Weiss is no stranger to grit, too, having learned to sail through snow and on ice on the lakes of her native Minnesota.

For both U.S. athletes, however, the most grueling impact of their long-term commitment to Olympic competition has been on family life.

After a week of neck-and-neck trial regattas started on a squally January day, McNay and Dallman-Weiss celebrated their win at the Miami Yacht Club with his wife and children, and her parents. That was a rare moment together, they said, since global competition puts them on planes to far-flung locales most of the year.

“Each day you’re not with your family, you’re missing precious moments,” said McNay, whose two elementary school-age children can be quite “vocal” about how much they dislike dad leaving.

On her part, Dallman-Weiss has struggled with not being more present as her father fought with a cancer diagnosis or as her friends celebrated their newborns.

One baby she’s met — in fact, the 10-month-old boy was right there on shore in Miami waiting for the boats to be towed back into the bay at each day’s end — is the firstborn of her former women’s 470 Olympic partner, Nikki Barnes.

Barnes, a 30-year-old from the U.S. Virgin Islands, was breastfeeding exclusively when she started her campaign for the 2024 team, and even though she didn’t make it, she has started training for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.

“It feels more equal than ever before,” Barnes said of these Games, although she believes women sailors still feel more pressure to prove they belong.

According to a May report by World Sailing, the sport’s global governing body, it’s an upwind battle to true gender balance, with women representing only 18% of coaches and support staff for the world championships, for instance.

As long as the focus isn’t on stereotypes about each gender’s different strengths, mixed events like the 470 promote equality by showing men and women working together for the medals, said Michele Donnelly, a professor of sports and gender at Brock University in Canada.

And “being on the podium and hearing the national anthem” is the dream that makes it all worthwhile for McNay and Dallman-Weiss.

That, and the sheer pleasure they get when they hit the water, even though they’ve sailed for decades.

“The moment you’re off the dock, big breath, life is good,” Dallman-Weiss said.

Added McNay: “It’s more fun than any waterpark could ever be.”


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