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At 24, Riley Gibbs has just played his first Olympic Games, finishing 9th overall in the mixed multihull event (Nacra 17) with the Anna Weis crew. In this report by Michelle Slade for the Saint-François sailing foundation, Gibbs talks about his experience at Tokyo 2020 and shares his thoughts on the sequel.


Where did you get the inspiration to become an Olympic athlete?
It has been a dream of mine since I was young – for as long as I can honestly remember. I sailed clogs in So Cal as a kid – when I was in third grade I remember hiding Seahorse magazines under my history books on my desk, trying to read articles and looking through them all. the photos of the Games.

I remember European teams coming to Alamitos Yacht Club when I was a junior to train with Chris Rast. A team broke its rudder and threw it in the trash. My friend and I grabbed the rudder, cut it in half with a hacksaw, and each kept half of it in our rooms – we idolized the idea of ​​what it stood for. Putting our fingers on the rudder itself was like a dream come true for us at the time – I would say the desire to be an Olympian is largely internal.

How was the vibe in Tokyo given all the constraints, and did it live up to your dreams?
Regardless of COVID, just being there and being able to experience it for yourself is something that is second to none in life, I would say. This is something that I have personally looked forward to my whole life and idolized everyone I have told or met about it who had been to the Olympics.

Looking at your performance, what worked, what didn’t?
We were okay with our performance – we had trained hard in a multitude of different conditions, but we didn’t see many of those conditions that we expected. The first two days were tough for us as it was a short steep chop, 6ft waves falling off these cliffs – kind of like skiing. It was pretty intense.

We weren’t over the moon about our overall result, but for our first Olympics and being one of the youngest teams participating, I thought we did well by finishing 9th. It’s a great stepping stone to Paris 2024, that’s how we see it – a building process.

Santi (Santiago Lange, Argentina), for example, is 59 and has competed in four Olympics – that’s over 16 years of experience for us. It’s hard when you try to compare yourself to people like that. Even if you try not to do it, you end up doing it because it’s so results-based and not so subjective.

What more did you need to win?
More time and more resources. We’ve had a great group of people involved in our campaign – Sally Barkow is a great coach, and we’ve had a lot of mentors like Mike and Stephanie Martin, Jay and Pease Glaser, and Howie and Julie Hamlin, our parents – you have need a great team behind you. The teams that made it to the podium have good funding, great teams behind them, and a lot of experience and time on us that you just can’t buy.

This is no small feat and there is a lot more going on behind the scenes. It’s not just about fundraising at a yacht club or deciding to go out for a 3 hour sailing session on any given day – it’s a full-time job and every quad gets more professional.

Talk to Paige (Railey) or Charlie (Buckingham) or Stu (McNay) and Dave (Hughes) and other seasoned athletes on the team and they’ll all agree, “Wow, no one has been partying this. last quad – everyone was so serious! ”

We joke on the Olympic team to keep it light between races, so those kinds of conversations happen. But that’s something to consider – 20 years ago when our coaches were competing it was different, and we haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of team dynamics and performance yet. It’s a lot more scientific now and we have the tools.

What was a highlight for you in the race?
He came back to the event and explained all our weaknesses. We didn’t know how we would compare to the other teams because we hadn’t seen them in 14 months since the COVID outbreak, but we did well against most of the fleet under certain conditions which was really cool.

Our biggest weakness before the Games was the start. The Nacra 17 isn’t like an FJ in high school sailing, or a Laser where you can just flip it, or a J / 22 where you can tack it and use kinetic energy to move it. You really need to learn time and distance and rotation and time.

It’s quite tricky – the length of the ropes on the daggerboards and foils is long, so you lose flow very quickly. But, according to the regatta and race analyzes that our R&D team put together for us, we were one of the best teams at the start of the whole event – it was a shock to me because it wasn’t something we were too confident about!

How did you feel when you came home to the “what then” situation?
I had planned other events, the first being the Moth World 2021 at Lake Garda, Italy. I was training for this shortly after the Olympics ended, which prolonged for better or worse the state of depression (laughs) that some athletes feel.

Your whole life has been working for one goal for so long and it shouldn’t go un-celebrated. Anna, Sally, and I each had our own unique emotions at the end. Once back home (Long Beach, CA), I will have time to decompress.

And after?
The immediate future is somewhat unknown, but I can’t wait to join the US SailGP team and learn as much as I can. Being involved in SailGP has really helped a lot for the Olympics – you learn so much about professionalism, event logistics, teamwork – it’s amazing. What we don’t earn in wages, we definitely get back in exchange for knowledge and experience (laughs). I’m really happy to be a part of it.

Are you planning Paris 2024?
Plans are on hold at the moment. Anna has to finish her studies at Boston University, so we try to give her some space. But that doesn’t mean I’m taking my foot off the gas when it comes to the campaign – be it its R&D behind the scenes or the development of sails – any sort of niche to stand out from the competition we can get, I’m seeing through and just waiting for Anna’s return!

To learn more about the St. Francis Sailing Foundation, Click here.


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