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Team USA at Tokyo 2020 Olympics Day 7: Heartbreak for Roble/Shea in 49erFX

by US Sailing Team 31 Jul 15:32 BST July 25 - August 4, 2021
Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea (USA) on day 7 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Sailing Competition © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

The seventh day of sailing at Tokyo 2020 served as a demonstration of the raw emotional power of this event, and how the latter stages of the Olympic regatta can impact both the athletes who compete and those who support them. At one end of the spectrum, the inherent joy of competition at the highest level was manifested in Miami RS:X board sailor Pedro Pascual, who after years of sustained effort competed in his first Olympic medal race. And on the other end, the U.S. 49erFX team saw a well-sailed regatta come to an unexpected, unusual and heartbreaking conclusion.

On Saturday, 49erFX athletes Stephanie Roble (East Troy, Wis.) and Maggie Shea (Wilmette, Ill.) competed in the final three races of the 12-race qualifying series prior to Monday's medal race. Entering the day, Roble and Shea were in 6th overall and 15 points from 3rd. The final races of the qualifying series would not only determine who would finish in the top-10 and advance to the medal race, but who would be within reach of the podium.

All courses on Saturday experienced a patchy 5-9 knots of wind with significant current. Despite the difficult conditions, Roble and Shea had a strong start in race 10, but finished 14th after receiving a career-first yellow flag penalty from the umpires for a Rule 42 breach. Rule 42 refers to improperly moving their bodies to propel the boat in the very light conditions. In the second race (Race 11), the Americans again started strong, but touched the first mark as they were rounding in 7th place.

"After hitting it, we were working to get around the mark as the whole fleet was right there [behind us]," said Shea. "We didn't want to get tangled up on the mark and cause a pileup. We wanted to get out of the way. We got around the mark, and immediately started spinning [a penalty-clearing 360 degree turn]. In the process of spinning, the umpires flagged us again for what we thought was hitting the mark. We were already spinning for hitting the mark, and kept sailing once we finished, thinking we were clear."

Roble and Shea crossed the line in 8th in Race 11, but when they approached the umpires to get more information, they were informed that they had been scored DNE for both incurring a second yellow flag penalty for Rule 42 and for failing to retire from the race.

"We told the umpires that we spun for hitting the mark, and they said [that we breached Rue 42) before we hit it," said Shea. "We and others that I've spoken to assumed that they were flagging us for hitting the mark. We knew we hit it, and we were in the process of getting out of the way of the fleet in order to spin." Added Roble, "These are the first two yellow flags that we have had in five years of campaigning for the Olympics."

A strong 5th place finish in Race 12 came next, and would have left Roble and Shea in medal contention if the Race 11 score had not been converted from an 8th into a non-discardable DNE. Instead, Roble and Shea were left in 11th overall, three points from advancing to the medal race, and at the end of their regatta.

Roble and Shea entered the event having medaled at the most recent 49erFX Class World Championship in 2019. A new skiff team at the start of the Tokyo 2020 cycle, they forged themselves into strong contenders by building on years of prior experience as a team in other classes, and under the guidance of four-time Olympian and 49erFX World Champion Giulia Conti.

"We've done an incredible job growing as team over the last five years to get to the point that we're at," said Roble, the 2014 US Sailing Yachtswoman of the Year. "Our coach Giulia was a huge leader for us. This result doesn't represent all that we've learned and accomplished. We were sailing well throughout the event, and today we were sailing to win. We left it all out there."

In the Men's RS:X, Pedro Pascual (Miami, Fla.) finished 6th in his first career Olympic medal race, and ended Tokyo 2020 in 9th overall. His top-10 finish is the best result by an American board sailor at the Olympic Games since medal-winning performances in 1988 and 1992 by Mike Gebhardt (Columbus, Ohio).

"I'm really happy about my performance," said Pascual, a two-time Olympian who finished 28th at Rio 2016. "In Rio, I was just 20 years old. I was the youngest of the whole RS:X fleet. In that situation, you feel small compared to the legends that you're sailing against. So now I know I'm at the same level as they are."

Pascual showed speed across a variety of conditions, and his ability to stay competitive as the weather changed earned him a medal race berth. "I was able to manage the pressure this week and everything that comes along with the Olympic Games. It's just a different event than anything else. I was able to find my find my speed and build my confidence. Of course, it can always be better. Right now I'm seeing my mistakes now and I could have definitely been higher up there. But overall, I'm happy with my performance, happy with the way I sailed and and it was a great experience."

In the Nacra 17, Riley Gibbs (Long Beach, Calif.) and Anna Weis (Fort Lauderdale, FL) scored a 9, 12, 5 and are in 10th overall with three more races to go until the medal race field is set. The pair has recorded single-digit finishes in five of their nine races, and are focused on finishing the qualifying series strong on Sunday.

"We're definitely battling out here" said Gibbs. "We're really analyzing every day and trying to get the most out of it. But to be completely honest, we haven't seen our best conditions here [in Enoshima]. So that shows in some of our results. And it's pretty unpredictable as to what is going to happen [with the conditions]." Weis added that regardless of what the race course gives them, they have to be ready. "Our focus going into the last few races is to keep it simple and focus on the basics. It seems like the more people can execute the basics here, the more you can hang in the top group. Everyone is pretty fast. So it's just about executing all the small things."

Finn sailor Luke Muller (Ft. Pierce, Fla.) finished 8, 10 today, and sits in 13th overall with two more races to go on Sunday before the medal race participants are determined. Muller is currently six points away from 10th. The Florida native rounded the first mark of the first race today (Race 7) in 3rd, and the first mark of the second race (Race 8) in 5th, but lost a few boats in both races amidst tense light-air battles.

On Sunday, August 1, US Sailing Team Men's 470 and Womn's 470 athletes Stu McNay (Providence, R.I.), Dave Hughes (Miami, Fla.) Nikole Barnes (St. Thomas, USVI) and Lara Dallman-Weiss (Shoreview, Minn.) return to action midway through their events. McNay and Hughes sit in 11th overall, with Barnes and Dallman-Weiss in 9th.

The NBC Olympics website is hosting the Tokyo 2020 sailing event for U.S. audiences starting at 11:00 PM EDT (8:00 PM PDT) during the event. There are two televised race areas per day, the "Enoshima" and "Kamakura" courses. As the classes rotate through each course daily, different athletes will be featured on the broadcast.

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