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An interview with Dawn Riley on Oakcliff's Helix roadmap to the Olympics

by David Schmidt 12 Jan 16:00 UTC January 12, 2021
Executive Director Dawn Riley © Oakcliff Sailing

The road to the Olympics is a hard one, and the road to an Olympic medal ceremony is appreciably tougher. Attaining the podium's top step is easily one of the hardest goals that a young sailor can set for herself or himself. But as with all journeys, the road to the Olympics needs to start somewhere, and it needs to have realistic checkpoints along the way to help ensure that valuable time, resources, and opportunities are not accidentally wasted.

As with all dreams, ambition eventually needs to meet reality.

This can be difficult in any sport, but American sailing presents a unique challenge to aspiring hopefuls as sailing isn't exactly mainstream, nor is it a sport that has typical feeder pathways such as those that exist for sports like baseball or basketball.

Then there's the issue of funding. Unlike European or Antipodean sailors, American sailors can expect to spend a significant amount of their time and energy fundraising and likely self-investing in their own dreams. But when does an investment prove to be a misallocation of funds?

Oakcliff Sailing, which is the country's premiere high-performance sailing school, recently created a roadmap for Olympic hopefuls. This map, called the Helix (www.oakcliffsailing.org/oakcliff-olympic-helix) in Oakcliff parlance, provides aspiring sailors with realistic waypoints on their road to the Olympics. If these waypoints are all met, a sailor has a reasonably good chance of making it to the Games. If waypoints prove elusive or unachievable, the Helix can serve as a different sort of telltale.

I checked in with Dawn Riley, Oakcliff Sailing's executive director, via email, to learn more about Oakcliff's Helix roadmap for Olympic hopefuls.

What was Oakcliff's inspiration to create the Oakcliff Helix? Also, did Oakcliff work with US Sailing to create this roadmap, or was this purely the brainchild of Oakcliff's in-house focus group?

The question of 'what makes an Olympian' is an old one? Our answer was: "We don't know and can't seem to find anyone who really does," so we'll invent the Triple Crown [race series] and use that as a way to determine where our support goes.

When [double 470 gold medalist] Malcolm Page was hired by US Sailing [in 2016] we saw it as an exciting new phase in Olympic sailing for America. He stopped into Oakcliff on one of his first days in the country and was energized and very optimistic about the funding available in this country.

We were curious about what made [Page] so successful and [about] his experience in multiple different systems. We ended that conversation knowing that there was a lot of 'assumptions' and individuals pontificating with a few of the "back-in-my-day" comments thrown in but very little research and concrete facts.

Oakcliff worked with Malcolm and Greg Fisher, champion sailors of all ages, and—possibly more importantly—with young sailors [who are] actively campaigning. Oakcliff did the research and compilation of the data and then proofed the results with dollars and cents and circled back with the actively campaigning Olympians.

We provided all of the and pushed our [sport's] national governing body to help us make it available to all of America. That didn't happen so we did it ourselves.

Who are the target sailors that the Oakcliff Helix is aimed at? Did Oakcliff have a particular demographic in mind when the Helix was created?

This is for everyone and it is a bit of an equalizer.

For too many years, the intellectual property of an Olympic campaign has resided [with] a few athletes, a few coaches, and was kind of a secret that, when shared, started with "you need to have a lot of money". The dream of many who didn't have money often stopped at that statement and, conversely, those that did have money were led to think "check - this should be easy".

So [the Helix] is for everyone. If you are a coach, this is a guide for how to promote your athletes up the ladder. If you are a parent, it gives you tools to evaluate when you should consider spending resources and when you should hold them in reserve. If you are a kid from the middle of the country who has just discovered sailing, this helps you with a vision of what your dream will look like.

Based on your experience, what percentage of Olympic-hopeful sailors who come through Oakcliff make it through the various rungs? Also, what percentage go on to sail in the Olympics?

The Olympics is a long game. In an ideal world, [Olympic hopefuls] are able to commit to training for two quads and not be discouraged along the way. If the Olympics were easy, everyone would have a medal!

Most of the [United States'] Olympic sailors have come through Oakcliff in one way or another. But from day one, our goal has been that [sailors] gain skills and tools that are going to stay with [them] forever.

So, if you work your way up three rungs and don't get to the Games, you still have learned valuable lessons.

If we have everyone working as a team on this American Helix, then the medals won are in part due to all of the sailors who never made it to the Games but [who helped] propel the top ones there.

Where does college sailing fit into this helix? Or, is college sailing irrelevant to this roadmap?

Good questions! Education is important and that is why the USPA High Performance High School is at Oakcliff.

College is more involved and if someone is going to university and they have the time and the grades they should sail on the team. Again, there are lasting skills gained.

This Helix just shows you that when you get up to the North American Rung and are competing year-round, you need to be done with college or put it on pause.

We are trying to help people look at their decisions rationally but [there] are still decisions and choices that have to be made.

Does Oakcliff plan to update the cost estimates in the Helix, year-on-year, to adjust for inflation (or the price increases/decreases), or is this a document that prospective Olympic sailors will need to adjust on their own?

We are planning on updating the Helix whenever more information becomes available, and we are in touch with the current athletes who are really a key part to sharing the information.

How does something like the new Mixed Two Person Offshore Keelboat Event at the Paris 2024 Olympics fit into this helix?

We're getting to that. We have the data-we just need to package it up.

Of course, the recent IOC delay doesn't help.

Do you ever envision creating Oakcliff Helices for sailors who aspire to compete in the America's Cup or The Ocean Race, rather than the Olympics?

Yes - we are already living those Helix's in our Sapling Programs, and as you know, Mark Towill and Charlie Enright [of 11th Hour Racing] are [Oakcliff] graduates, as are Sean O'Halloran and Robyn Lesh who are both with American Magic. Sean as a grinder and Robyn as a part of the design team.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

We are constantly expanding our offerings. This spring we will continue the USPA High Performance High School with spring training in Florida.

We [also] have programs in the Midwest and the North East, and [we] can accommodate up to 118 athletes throughout the spring, summer, and fall. They just need to show up!

Sometimes I think we overwhelm people with options. It's not that hard. Show up, work hard, learn, and sail. A pretty cool life. (I know - I've been doing this professionally for 41 years!)

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