Coach Robbie Daniel shows student Sarah Streater some of the finer points of Olympic sailing at his facility on the Dunedin Causeway.
DUNEDIN – There may be some Olympic athletes in your neighborhood. In fact in Dunedin they come from a spot along the causeway.
Take a drive and you will see budding Olympic sailors working out every weekend. They have been doing it for several years and who knows one or more of them might be participating in the next Summer Olympics in 2016.
The athletes training on the causeway are being coached by Robbie Daniel, 51, himself an Olympic class sailor who came within a hair of participating in two different Olympics in the late 1990s and during the last decade.
He said it was a lot of work for him and a lot of work for the students who are learning from him now.
“It winds up being nearly a full time job,” he said. “There is all manner of training to do, not just with the boats, but also physical training. Those boats are pretty physical so you have to be fit. It is part of the training. It is at an elite level. It doesn’t matter what sport it is; there is so much detail and it makes you a better athlete.”
Daniel’s Olympic sailing career really began when he was 12 years old and began racing competitively. He progressed through the system and ultimately took part in four Olympic campaigns. A Campaign is a four-year regimen that takes place between Olympics and it ends with trials and races to determine who the U.S. Olympic Sailing Committee chooses to represent the country at the Olympics. Daniel came close on two occasions.
“Twice I finished second in the last race,” he said. “Going into it I was tied, I still had a chance in the last race to win the selection.”
Daniel said the pain of not winning after four years of such hard work, wasn’t as bad as he imagined.
“I was obviously disappointed, but you are kind of prepared for that all along,” he said. “Obviously, you are disappointed and heart broken, but it was not as devastating as I thought it would be. Right after the race you have to begin to pack up and get ready to go home and get on with life so that helped me not to dwell on it so much.”
It was around that time that Daniel began coaching and he’s been at it ever since. His wife, Jill Nickerson, 54, is also his partner in the business, Red Deer Racing. She said when a young sailor comes to them for more advanced training it is quite a shock.
“Most kids are used to racing what we call ‘Optis,’ boats designed for them and it is exciting for young kids. But after a while they get bored and some of them leave sailing,” she said. “We try to capture them and introduce them on an F-16 class boat which is bigger and faster. It is like a rocket ship by comparison and the kids get an adrenaline rush and say it is over the top. We have yet to get a kid on an F-16 that doesn’t get off the water and say it was fabulous. It was a rush.”
The actual Olympic sailing boats are N-17’s. Reed Deer Racing operates both and it isn’t cheap.
“The N-17 costs anywhere from $31,000 to $33,000 and the F-16 costs about $20,000,” said Nickerson. “We really don’t have a choice of what we buy. If you are going to train for the Olympics then you have to do it in boats approved by them.”
The boats are multi-hulled; they are catamarans, Hobie-cats.
Nickerson said the sailing competition in the upcoming Summer Olympics has been changed and she said it is for the better, that there is now a level playing field.
“They took sailing out of the last Olympics but now it is back in,” she said. “The difference is that this time they have dictated that there must be a mixed crew, a male and a female. So everybody is starting out with a clean slate. There is no Olympic history with mixed crews.”
Training mixed crews is what Daniel is doing on the Causeway. One of his students is Sarah Streater, 18, a senior in high school in Fort Lauderdale. She makes the four-hour drive to Dunedin every weekend to train.
“It is crazy but it is a lot of fun,” she said. “There are great sailors in this class and it is lots of fun to compete against top sailors.”
Streater has been sailing with Matthew Whitehead, 21, a USF student from Panama City. She feels they have the chemistry they need to be successful.
“We have been sailing together for a while,” she said. “The last time we competed together we placed second, he is my main crew.”
Their goal? Predictably, the Olympics.
“I’m planning on trying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,” said Streater. “Hopefully we can be the top USA boat and then go and win a medal. Do we have a realistic chance? I think so. We are a top team right now and we feel good about competing against other teams.”
Daniel agrees it is a good goal to have, but wonders if it might not be a bit premature.
“The goal to make the Olympics is possible, anything is possible,” he said. “You have to start off with that attitude, realistically they should be shooting for the 2020 games, but none of these guys want to do that, they want it now, four years is a long time for them.”
As for his own Olympic aspirations, Daniel said they are probably over.
“I have it in me to have another go at it,” he said. “But you have to look at what makes sense. It is a lot of money; you have to find a way to pay for it all. I’m more focused on coaching and making a living. Olympic campaigning doesn’t do anything but cost you money.”
Daniel said he is encouraged that the U.S. Olympic Committee has begun to fund his sport more than it ever did before.
Despite the fact that he likely won’t compete for an Olympic spot anymore, Daniel says he has no intention of giving up sailing, ever.
“I love being out there and the competition,” he said. “I can combine the joy of sailing with the joy of helping others enjoy sailing as much as they can.”
His methods must be working. Take it from Streater, one of his students.
“Robbie is a good coach, I absolutely love Robbie coaching,” she said. “I learn something every day. He’s a great sailor and whatever you can get out of him will make you great. I learn so much just being with him.”