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Who will win? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The online experience is best when you forget you’re online.

Olympic sailor, James Espey, and his wife and Team USA sailor, Genny Tulloch, made that happen in their program – Sail the Virtual Seas with an Olympian.

Bantering with amateur sailors and sailor wannabes online, Espey provided an exciting blow-by-blow commentary of one of his own races at the 2012 London Olympics, using video and web conferencing annotation tools to demonstrate the excitement of Laser class sailing, drawing involuntary “woah’s” and “oohs” from the program participants.

We were all joining a new virtual learning course organized by Airbnb. The global lodging company has invested in guided experiences hosted by residents of popular travel spots called Airbnb Experiences. In the era of social distancing, Airbnb is moving experiences online, a growing number hosted by Olympians, current and retired. While other programs focused on the personal back stories of Olympians, like the Airbnb Experiences of Breeja Larson or Lauren Gibbs, Espey’s focus was on the tactics of race sailing, finding inventive ways to engage and teach.

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Using household items like utensils, bag clips and tooth picks, Espey, a Northern Ireland native, and Tulloch, a contender for Tokyo2020, demonstrated the choices sailors make at the starting line depending on wind direction. They showed through items on their table how competitive sailors explain race conditions and tactics  to each other, a practice called “Bar Karate,” so called for the movement of arms made to show shifts in boat direction, usually executed with a favored drink in hand.

For the layperson, sailing is a mystery. For the competitive racer, sailing is a challenge. But the differentiating factor between a great sailor and an Olympic sailor, like the Olympic Alpine skier, is in the ability to read the course. Unlike skiers, sailors have to read their watery course as it changes on a moment-to-moment basis, because of the wind.

Catching the visual cues of wind, revealed in darker patches of water known as “puffs,” or “cat’s paws” is a critical differentiating factor, as Espey explained. “If you get a header, you tack. If you see a puff, you have to understand why it is happening, what its effect will be, and how your behavior in the boat should change. Is it going to lift me? Head me?”

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Is that dark patch a “puff” of wind to leverage, the shadow of a cloud, or a forest of kelp?

In addition to dark patches in the water, clouds are clues to the location of wind. But you need to understand the differences in clouds. Tulloch said that “clouds that are building are sucking in air. They look like mushrooms, and you want to avoid them at all costs. The ones that are about to spit out rain, you sail to as fast as you can. The second that rain comes there is 10-15 knots more than anywhere else on the course.”  Added Espey, “You have to watch clouds out of the corner of your eye. As clouds move across the course, they can drag the winds, create a temporary false wind shift, and swing back again once that cloud leaves. They’re very helpful. You can play them. You just don’t know until it happens.”

On the particular London Olympic race day that Espey shared, it was “pretty hectic,” as the Nothe Course, one of five Laser courses in Weymouth Bay had considerable wind shifts in play. “It was hell,” said Espey. Like any race, reading the “puffs,” and understanding which ones will provide the greatest acceleration is vital. And he showed how many sailors may have misread a dark patch in the bay to the left of the starting line as a puff, when actually it was a shadow of a very high cloud, “which distracted a lot of these guys,” said Espey.

A smaller group headed right toward true wind, and got off to a great start. Tulloch explained that  people who qualify for the Olympics are the best at managing these things: reading the wind, starting well, and physically handling the demands of the boat while monitoring shifts in the wind. Espey said it’s like examining a puzzle and finding the easy way through it.

Espey still competes in professional competitions at the highest levels, and remodels boats in San Francisco, including the 100-foot super maxi CQS, the world’s fastest yacht, the first to exceed 50 knots. Tulloch does color commentary for televised sailing events like American’s Cup, and is expected to do so during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Together, they form a terrific tag-team teaching combo. Come and sail the virtual seas with them in this engrossing Airbnb Experience.

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James Espey sailing in the Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team Ireland. (With permission from James Espey.)
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Some people describe it like being kicked off a cliff in a trash can, akin to the worst turbulence you ever felt while flying.

That’s how Lauren Gibbs described the experience of the bobsleigh in her compelling online program, A Day in the Life, Olympic Bobsledder. Her live program is part of Airbnb’s newly launched online experiences, a growing list of programs you can join via Zoom, a great way to fill the time during your COVID-19 home isolation. On the day I participated, people from New Jersey, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Quebec and Tokyo gathered to listen to a bona fide Olympian.

Gibbs is a native of Los Angeles, California, which she points out is “far from being the Mecca of bobsledding.” Unlike Breeja Larson profiled in Part 1, Gibbs didn’t dream of being an Olympian since the age of 4. She went to college (Brown University) where she played volleyball, got her MBA (Pepperdine University), and then worked in sales for 12 years. She was working in Denver, making good money overseeing a team of 200 across 5 states. But she wasn’t happy in her work.

One day in 2014, while working out at Front Range CrossFit in Denver, Gibbs had one of those accidental meetings that in hindsight, changed her life. Jill Potter, eventual captain of the US women’s rugby team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, trained at the same gym, and asked Gibbs a series of surprising questions: How much do you back squat? How about dead lifts? And can you sprint?

Gibbs answered, but had no idea why she was being asked these questions until Potter came back and said, “I think you should bobsled.” Gibbs, who sprinkles her talk with laugh-out-loud remarks throughout the online session said, “which of course is something every 30 year old thinks they’re going to hear on a random Wednesday.”

But Gibbs actually took the idea seriously. She had experience being unemployed during the sub-prime crisis and promised herself then that she would always give every new opportunity a serious look. So she did some digging. She learned that since women’s bobsledding was introduced as an Olympic event in 2002, Team USA had medaled every time. She learned that the USOPC had a training center in Colorado Springs and that there happened to be a try out that weekend. She thought, “What do I have to lose. At the very least, I can enjoy the food at the cafeteria, maybe meet some Olympians. It will be a cool story to tell at the office.”

After the try out, she got an invitation to rookie camp at Lake Placid in New York, and found out what it was really like to ride a bobsled down an actual sliding course.

I’m standing over the edge and it looks like an iced-over water slide, a death trap. I’m standing at the top of the mountain and I’m terrified. I’m staring down at the dark abyss, because it goes right into a corner and you can’t see what’s coming next.

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Gibbs demonstrating what it’s like to be a brakeperson in a 2-person bobsleigh.

Gibbs made it down the track, and she screamed “Heck yes! I’ve got to do that again!”

And so the sales executive quit her job and embarked on a path of potential glory, but also great uncertainty.

Following your dream is an amazing thing, but it is also painful. The harder you work and the closer you get to your goal, the more terrifying it becomes. You start to realize that as you get closer to your goal, you have more to lose. There is so much uncertainty. And a lot of times, there’s nothing you can do about it as so many things are out of your control.

Spoiler alert – Gibbs would eventually make Team USA on the 2-person bobsleigh team, joining then two-time Olympian and medalist, Elana Meyers-Taylor. The pair would take silver in their event at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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Showing off her very heavy silver medal from the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

Today, Gibbs is training to make Team USA for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. She is making less money, but she is saving more as she has become more focused in her goal and more disciplined about what she needs and doesn’t need. And she is happy.

In her online program, Gibbs shares three of her life’s lessons, one of which is how to say “no,” something easier to do when you know what you want. She knows it. And she’s going for it.

Do you want to feel that passion? Do you want to ask her yourself how she does it? Then sign up for her program.

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From Lauren Gibbs’ Instagram page.

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She grew in the heart of the ghetto in Mesa, Arizona, with dreams of making a million dollars, but little else.

I was four years old, watching my first Olympic Games, and looking at the gymnasts, and being thrilled with them, how powerful and beautiful and graceful they were. And I had the thought, ‘they’re little like me. If they can do it, I can do it.’

Today, Breeja Larson is an Olympic champion, with a life of lessons for future Olympians, and the rest of us. In fact, in this age of CoronaVirus, lock downs and social distancing, Larson is expanding her network and influence virtually. Working with Airbnb, Larson offers an online program called “Goal Setting with Olympic Gold Medalist,” an intimate and stimulating experience with a world-class athlete.

Larson won a gold medal in swimming at the 2012 London Olympics on a powerful Team USA swim squad which took nearly half of the 34 gold medals up for grab in swimming. One of those gold medals went to Larson who swam in the preliminary heat in the 4×100 medley relay for Team USA, swimming one of the fastest breaststroke legs amidst the 16 teams, ensuring her team would compete in the finals. Although Larson didn’t swim in the finals, her teammates set a world record and got them all gold medals.

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Larson with her gold medal….the color reflected on my screen not doing the medal’s sheen justice.

Larson shared her story on Zoom with 8 participants who joined from California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina and Tokyo. They were able to hear her Olympic journey, a powerful story of perseverance.

As Larson grew to 6 feet tall, she realized she wasn’t going to realize her dream as an Olympic gymnast. But she knew sport was a way for her to get a college education, and that she would need a scholarship to accomplish that. She saw swimming as an opportunity, and convinced a local Mesa swim club to allow her to swim for free for 10 months. Her coach was encouraging, and asked her of her Olympic dreams. When Larson explained  she used to harbor hopes of becoming an Olympic gymnast, her coach opened her eyes to the world of possibility.

Swimming is like gymnastics. Every time you dive in the pool, you have to have the perfect angle, grace and power. Every flip turn has to have the perfect landing. It’s a beautiful dance routine in the water.

That was the moment Larson’s mindset shifted, when she learned that every time you look at something as a negative, you can change the mental angle and see it as a positive. “Mindset has a very strong hold over your performance,” she said.

Larson built up her savings in high school lifeguarding, making sandwiches at Subway, cleaning homes, even collecting aluminum cans while training hard as a swimmer. And her hard work paid off when she got a partial scholarship to Texas A&M University. But life as a student athlete was tough, particularly since she had to embark on a training regimen to make up for years of training that most of her teammates had already compiled.

The workload as a student athlete was just crushing me. And one day, two months into the academic year, I remember going into the cafeteria, trying to eat my food, and the biggest pile of bricks just fell on me. I felt I was about to crack. Everything felt so hard and I was breaking down.

She sent a long message to her mother – “a pathetic rant” as she called it – and said essentially, “I’m going to drown. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to quit. I want to go home. I’m not good enough.” And as Larson wallowed in self pity, her mother sent a her a very simple life-changing message.

This is what it feels like to be a champion.

In this Airbnb Experience, Larson shared that lesson as well as several others she has learned over the years. In addition to the critical impact of having a positive mindset, she talked at length about how important it is to set audacious goals, to chunk the big goal into smaller tactical goals, be intensively self aware about what you want and why, and get objective feedback from others. She is articulate, practical and most of all, inspiring.

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And now, at the age of 27, Larson is working hard to apply those lessons and make the team again for Tokyo next year. Competing as a pro, she actuallytook first leading wire-to-wire in a 100-meter breaststroke finalsof the Phillips 66 National Championships on August 3, 2019, only 9 months ago, giving her hope of returning to the Olympics in 2021. But then COVID-19 entered the picture.

The pools are all closed. Coaches don’t have jobs. But the athlete in my head is saying, ‘keep going. You got this. 16 more months. Just chunk it out. Figure it out up here and the rest of it will take care of itself.’ But if I choose to swim, everything else goes on hold. I can’t eat anything with sugar. (Assuming concerns of the pandemic ease) I wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere with my boyfriend or go to music festivals. I’d miss a lot of summer weddings.

However, if she doesn’t make the attempt, Larson said she would “have this empty hole. I want to hang up my goggles after my last race, instead of saying the pandemic happened and I moved on.”

So against all odds, Larson stays positive, focused on her goal. Will we see her in Tokyo in the summer of 2021? Maybe you should attend her Airbnb Experience over the next few months and ask her yourself. She’ll be happy to talk with you.

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