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An interview with Mike Milner on Team Canada's sailing at the XXXII Olympiad

by David Schmidt 1 Sep 16:00 BST September 1, 2021
Sarah Douglas in the Laser Radial Medal Race at Tokyo 2020 © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Simply put, these are dark days if you're a fan of North American Olympic sailing. The USA, once the winningest nation when it came to earning Olympic sailing medals, suffered its third medal-ceremony shut out at this summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympics (the other two unfurled in 1936 and 2012), while Canada's Olympic-sailing medal draught, which began at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, continues unabated.

In fact, "O Canada" has not been heard at an Olympic sailing medal ceremony since the Athens 2004 Olympics, when Ross MacDonald and Mike Wolfs earned a silver medal in the venerable Star class. Prior to 2004, the Canadian national anthem had not been played at an Olympic sailing medal ceremony since the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, when Eric Jespersen and MacDonald earned bronze in the Star class.

Team Canada sent nine athletes, sailing in six different classes (Men's 470, 49er, Laser Radial, Women's RS:X, 49er FX and the Finn) to this summer's XXXII Olympiad. The country's best result—sixth place in the Laser Radial—was secured by Sarah Douglas, who was competing in her first Games.

[Editor's Note: Follow this link for an interview that I conducted with Douglas prior to the Games: www.sail-world.com/news/237756/Sarah-Douglas-on-her-first-Olympic-Games]

While there's zero doubt that Douglas is a brilliant sailor who will likely earn her way onto future Olympic podiums, the hard reality is that, even if she (or another Team Canada sailor) is successful in the next quad, the Paris 2024 Olympics would mark a full 20 years between sailing medals.

And that's the best-case scenario.

I checked in with Mike Milner, Sail Canada's high-performance director, via email, to debrief Team Canada's sailing performances at this summer's XXXII Olympiad and discuss the team's course back to the Olympic sailing podium.

What were Sail Canada's goals going into the Tokyo 2021 Olympics?

Sail Canada's goals for Tokyo 2020 were to have two teams in the medal race with a chance at a medal and to improve on our team's 2016 Games performances.

How do you feel these goals were reflected in the team's performances?

Overall, almost all the teams met the federation goals for the Games and improvement was met in every fleet.

Sarah Douglas, in particular, enjoyed a solid first Olympics. I realize this is early to be asking this question, but is she Canada's best hope for an Olympic sailing medal at the Paris 2024 Games?

Sarah Douglas had a good first Games performance, and we were encouraged that she was in a medal position half way through the medal race.

Sarah is our best prospect for a medal performance at the next Games, and we are also encouraged with our younger sailors' performances in 2021.

Both the U.S. and Canada have been experiencing a draught of Olympic sailing medals. How would you compare/contrast the problems that the two teams are having? Also, do you see any parallels?

Sail Canada heavily invested in the past year in a national talent ID program where we identify and invest in these athletes earlier if they meet certain performance metrics.

It is a priority for Sail Canada to continue working with US Sailing to develop our domestic programs and regattas, and to build better depth and quality of racing.

The U.S. has spent considerable time in recent year building and bolstering our youth-talent pipeline. Has Sail Canada taken similar steps to try and build a better team for future Olympics?

Our talent ID program starts with regional talent ID camps across the country where athletes are invited to attend a Canadian Youth squad trials camp. Athletes are selected to the Canadian Youth squad from this camp and are integrated into the national training camps and provided with coaching support at various events both domestically and internationally.

Sail Canada has also invested in Regional Training Centres to allow for athletes and coaches from different programs to train together and have better efficiency in use of resources.

How challenging was the "extra year" of the 2020 quadrennial for Canadian sailors? Also, is there any advantage in the compressed "quad" cycle between the 2021 Games and the Paris 2024 Olympics for sailors who plan to remain on the team?

The extra year caused by Covid created both challenges and opportunities for our team. Having an extra year provided us with more time to work on athlete progression, but on the other hand the teams and coaches had to deal with an ever-changing training schedule, which was not ideal.

With the uncertainty of travel, most of our Olympic team had little opportunity to come home to rest and recharge between training blocks, which was not ideal.

When you survey the teams that did really well at the Tokyo Olympics (Australia, UK), what do you think these programs have that Sail Canada does not currently offer its sailors?

When we look at the various models that were successful at the Games, three things stood out:

1. Successful teams had the funding and investment to allow athletes to compete and train and put in the quality and quantity of training necessary to win.

2. Successful teams had the right physical metrics for each boat.

3. Successful teams invested in the right coaches for each class and team.

4. Successful teams invested and spent more time at the Olympic venue during the lead up to the Games (before Covid), and this was definitely and advantage for those teams at the Games.

Our new Regional Training Centres should help to improve our programs and, hopefully, to catch up with these nations.

How do you feel the equipment (boats) for the 2024 Games suites Sail Canada and its sailors? For example, will the loss of the Finn and the Men's and Women's 470 classes create opportunities or headwinds for Canadian sailors?

Sail Canada has always had strength in the Finn class, so losing that class will have a direct impact on our performances for Paris 2024. However, we are very encouraged by the inclusion of Kite Foiling and the number of athletes that are currently training towards Paris.

We also see mixed 470 as a great opportunity for many younger teams, but that will be more of a long-term project for Sail Canada.

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