More than 1,600 athletes from 20 nations descended on Sydney, Australia for the Australian Youth Olympic Festival (AYOF) held every two years since 2001. Organized by the Australian Olympic Committee, the international sports competition features athletes under the ages of 18 and 19 -- including many future Olympians -- in 16 sports competing at venues throughout the city. The year marked the first to include competitive sailing.
The five-day festival kicked off with a colorful opening ceremony complete with the lighting of the Olympic torch, music, dancers and excited teams of young athletes proudly displaying their nation's flags as they marched into the nearly sold-out Sydney Entertainment Center.
The sailing competition took a team-racing format in which 10 teams competed for gold, silver and bronze medals over three days of racing. The competitors sailed out of the venerable Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron (RSYS) from where the famed Sydney-to-Hobart Race is sailed.
The NOR stipulated that each team be comprised of three boys and three girls. Australia had six teams representing its top junior sailors from its six states: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain and the USA rounded out the competitor list.
The American team featured skippers Evan Aras, 17, (Annapolis, MD), Cameron Cullman, 16, (Rye, NY) and Tedd Himler, 17 (Manhasset, NY), and crewpersons Elizabeth Whipple, 17 (Manhasset, NY), Franny Kupersmith, 18 (Annapolis, MD) and Liv Gunnarsson, 16 (River Vale, NJ). The U.S. team qualified to compete in Sydney by winning the U.S. Youth Team Racing Championship held at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in August 2006.
Prior to the first day of racing, team managers Chip and Lynne Whipple organized a practice for the sailors to acquaint themselves with the Pacer dinghy -- the Australian double-handed boat in which they'd be competing. The practice was held at the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club (RPAYC) about an hour north of downtown Sydney. The Whipples also arranged for one of the New South Wales team members to turn over her home to the American sailors who bonded with the local Australian team - MTV style.
The racing area could not have been more spectacular: Farm Cove with the city skyline, the Royal Botanical Gardens and the stunning Sydney Opera House as up-close backdrops. After weigh-in, it was clear to the Americans that heavy air would be needed if they expected to be competitive. Each of the American boats had 20 or more pounds on the rest of the fleet.
Fortunately, their prayers were answered when 20-25 knots of wind and big chop touched down on the bustling Sydney Harbor for the first two days of racing. The Americans were in their element, albeit in foreign boats and with umpires some thought too quick to penalize with on-the-water 360's and 720's.
Nonetheless, the Americans entered the third and final day of racing only one win out of second place and two out of first with a total of eight wins. Three teams were tied for second: NSW, WA and NZL with GBR in first.
The weather for the final day had temperatures well up into the 90s and winds forecast for 30+ knots. Qualifying races would be completed in the morning, followed by the medal round that afternoon pitting the top four teams in the standings. At about 10:00 a.m., the first two teams of six boats sailed out from the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron across a bustling Sydney Harbor to Farm Cove. The anticipated breeze had not yet materialized. The wind held at 6-8 knots throughout the morning qualifying races.
In spite of great starts off the line, the Americans simply could not keep their lighter (and faster) competitors in check. The U.S. team fell short in their efforts to make the final four. The team from Great Britain won the gold, Western Australia, the silver and New Zealand, the bronze medal, while New South Wales, which hosted the U.S. team, wound up in 4th place.
The Americans remained buoyant having had a good taste of some of the international sailing competition they would face in the coming years, especially looking ahead to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. They also can feel confident in their performance over the three days when they beat - in direct match-ups -- three of the four teams that advanced to the medal round. Finally, in the time-honored tradition of the international youth sailing circuit, the Americans exchanged team-logo'd apparel with their new and now permanent friends.
A special thanks goes out to the Manhasset Bay Sailing Foundation and the Oyster Bay Sailing Foundation for their generous support of the team in its sailing exploits down under.