Lyzia Xu 5

Olympians are inspirations because of their achievements despite the barriers before them. Lijia Xu won the gold medal in the Laser Radial sailing competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team China, reaching the heights of her sport after overcoming a lack of hearing and sight, a sporting complex inexperienced in sailing, cancer, and a culture not yet open to new ideas.

Today, the Shanghai native is based in Dorset, England, and like so many high-performance athletes, figuring out how to transition from sport to new and sustainable career opportunities.

As a coach and trainer, Xu has gone online, sharing her techniques and insight on Airbnb Experiences. Xu has two courses: Olympic Champion’s Sailing Journey, and the one I participated in, Home Workouts & Q&A with Olympic Gold Medalist.

In the Home Workouts course, Xu is all business, as she takes you through a wide range of stretching and small-muscle group workouts, explaining how “T,” “Y,” and “W” exercises can relieve pain and improve posture. For a first-timer like me, those exercises proved to be a heck of a workout.

Lijia Xu 1

Xu learned these techniques as a teenager when she first started training with sailor and coach, Jon Emmett, who taught her that not only could Pilates resolve her spine issues, they would give her the mobility and movement required for the very physical aspects of sailing in a one-person dinghy.

Xu met Emmett because she was desperate to learn. Within the sports development system in China, Xu was beholden to her coaches and the sporting administrators who dictated the training regimen of all their athletes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, competitive sailing was a relatively new sport in China, and so the local expertise was not so advanced.

Thirsty for knowledge, Xu read a book called “Be Your Own Sailing Coach,” and reached out to the author, Emmett, on Facebook, as she explained in her fascinating book, “Golden Lily: Asia’s First Dinghy Sailing Gold Medalist.” Despite the local protests, Xu helped get Emmett hired to coach the sailors in China. But that was just the beginning of the challenge, as Emmett and his coaching ways created discomfort for the local coaches, as Xu wrote:

All the sailors have to listen unconditionally to their coaches; the coaches obey their leaders; and the leaders report to their superiors. What Jon found hard was how those leaders, who had never sailed, could say that they knew what was best for the sailors and arrange everything based on their knowledge of an unrelated realm. They were unwilling to listen to the sailors’ opinions and it was a common practice to deny or disagree with what someone in a lower position said or asked for. So however hard the sailors tried to make the most reasonable and sensible suggestions to their coaches and leaders, their effort was mostly in vain.

Up to the moment Xu won the gold medal in the Radial Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics, she had to fight for time and advice from Emmett, as access to the English coach was highly restricted. But in some ways, that was par for the course for Xu.

When Xu was born in 1987, her parents learned that she had half the hearing of an ordinary person and very poor vision in her left eye. Throughout her childhood and teenage years in Shanghai, she had to deal with the embarrassment of asking people to repeat themselves, or the spiteful laughter of children and adults who could not understand why she had to be told things over and over again.

But thanks to a chance meeting in Shanghai with a sailing coach who spotted the 10-year-old swimmer at a pool one day, Xu was asked to try out for the nascent sailing team, in a boat called “Optimist,” an appropriate name for the young girl who continued to keep her chin up. Once she realized the benefits of sailing, her self-esteem bloomed.

The freedom (of the water) was particularly appealing because I felt my life was limited by my poor hearing and eyesight while on land. Young children laughed at me, made fun of me, and didn’t allow me to join their activities due to my lack of these basic human functions. So the moment I boarded a boat, a deep sense of freedom suddenly overwhelmed my body, heart and mind. I loved to be in the boat surrounded by nature which isn’t judgmental; just fresh, open and vast! I had never been so happy and fulfilled as I was on a boat.

Lyzia Xu 2

The little tomboy grew from 130 to 176 cm and doubled her weight from 30 to 60 kg. She won the 1998 Chinese National Championships in Hong Kong, and in 1999, won her first international competition, taking gold at the Asian Championships. Soon she was flying to other countries and winning championships overseas. And in 2002, at the age of 15, she had the 2004 Athens Olympics in her sights.

Perhaps the Olympics had always been a silent goal. Xu wrote in her book about how she was inspired by a Japanese television series about a female volleyball player hoping to make it to the Olympics. And when she eagerly watched the opening ceremonies on the 2000 Sydney Olympics, her father teased her by saying, “Will I see you on TV one day, representing China in the Olympic Games?”

However, as Xu wrote, “life doesn’t always go the way we plan.” In November of 2002, a tumor was discovered in her left thigh bone. Surgery would mean that the dream of making the team for the Athens Games was over. Not having surgery, she was told, would mean the possible loss of her leg, if not her life.

After the surgery, after the unbearable pain began to fade, she started her recovery – excruciating exercises so that she could reactivate her leg muscles and walk again. But beyond the exercises, she used the downtime to study English, with the intent to communicate with foreign sailors to improve her craft. And it was in those quiet moments alone, she realized how much she missed sailing.

Sometimes I would ponder how boring my life was without sailing. It was like a life without vigor, a picture without color, or a movie without sound. It was in those quiet days, reflecting on myself and the past, that I realized how deeply I loved the sport of sailing. My life just couldn’t continue without it. When I steered the boat it is actually the boat which was pointing out a route for me, guiding me towards my dream goal and life values.

Sometimes you meet someone whose life energy is so great, it’s visible. If you have the opportunity to meet Lijia Xu, online or otherwise, you’ll know what I mean.

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James 5_redacted
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.)
Zach Railey in a Finn
Zach Railey in a Finn

Outside of Title IX in America, one of the most powerful levers for gender equality in sports have been the IOC. As I mentioned in this post, the IOC has added new sports categories and re-shuffled events so that Tokyo 2020 will have a female-male participation rate of 48.8 to 52.2%. That’s up from a 44.2% female participation rate at the 2012 London Olympics.in this post

Take a look at this list of planned Tokyo 2020 events and you’ll see that there is equality in almost every sports category. Can’t say that for much of the work world!

Interestingly, there are a handful of events that are gender-specific. In other words, there are still events that only men can compete in, and some that only women can compete in. In part one of this series, I will look at the men-only events, and part two will feature the women-only events.

No Women Allowed

  • Greco-Roman Wrestling: There has never been an Olympic competition in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympics, and there are currently no international tournaments devoted to women in that sport. It is unclear to me why Greco-Roman wrestling, which disallows grabbing of legs and kicking of legs compared to freestlye wrestling, is not encouraged for women. One of most significant physical differences between men and women is muscle mass, particularly in the upper body, but no one is saying that men and women should compete against each other in Greco-Roman wrestling. While the IOC has pressured the United World Wrestling Federation to improve gender representation in their tournaments, Greco-Roman, for whatever reason, has not had a high female participation rate historically. The biggest challenge for the wrestling federation, as I understand it, is to increase the popularity of Greco-Roman wrestling for women so that they can put together a competitive enough field. This may take until after Tokyo 2020 to hit critical mass and allow for gender equality in Olympic wrestling.
  • Finn – One Person Dinghy: This sailing discipline is apparently the greatest sailing test for an individual. According to sailor Zach Railey in this article, “It is well documented that overall people throughout the world are getting bigger, stronger and fitter, and the Finn is really a true test of power, endurance, and mental strength. Anyone who has sailed a Finn in steep chop and 20 knots can tell you just how physically hard the boat is to sail.” So strength again emerges as a differentiator. And perhaps as a result, the number or women who compete in Finn has not reached critical mass. The question is, with the strength requirements for the Finn, is it too dangerous for the fairer sex? Who knows.
  • 50km Race-Walking: I can’t find any decent explanation for why the 50-km race walk is male only in the Olympics. Both men and women can compete in the 20-km race walk as Olympians. And women appear to have raced competitively in the 50k race walk in IAAF competitions through much of the 21st century. Who knows?
  • Rings: Again, men have the advantage in upper body strength vis-a-vis women. So perhaps the number of women competing in this gymnastics discipline never reached critical mass. And yet, according to this site, women competed in the rings (or as they used to be called, “the flying rings”, at the 1948 London Olympics as a part of the Women’s Team All Around competition. Women never competed in the rings again after the ’48 Games, and I don’t know why.
  • Pommel Horse: Hmmm….the pommel horse discipline in gymnastics appears to be a less popular discipline for men than say, the floor exercise, the rings or the parallel bar for example. This article explains that the pommel horse “caters to a different body type. Having long arms helps, giving the gymnast greater separation from the horse, and in turn, room for his hips and legs to swivel underneath him. And the basic motion – going around and around on a horizontal plane – is the opposite from the up-and-down motion of the bars, rings and vaults.” And yet, I can’t find any explanation as to why women have not traditionally competed except for the reason it’s true for the rings – greater requirements for upper body strength have discouraged women from training on the horse, and so a critical mass of women fit for competition may have never emerged. Again, who knows?

 

Woman on Rings

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Expect incredible drone shots of surfing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

One of my favorite toys as a kid was Verti-bird, a Mattel product from 1973 in which you operated a mini-helicopter to stop the bad guys. You had to control the helicopter’s lift and descent as well as speed, but it was connected to a wire so its flight was limited to a circular route.

But it was very cool!

Today, drones are the modern-day Verti-bird. This is a very weak comparison because drones today are in the middle of cutting-edge advancements in logistics, the military, security, news and sports coverage.

I remember talking with a photographer who covered the sailing events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and he mentioned that it is hard for people unfamiliar with yacht competitions to show interest because of how hard it is to capture these competitions visually. Perhaps drones will change that.

Fox Sports made a commitment last year to provide broadcasts of golf and super cross using perspectives provided by drones. This has been made possible by adjustments to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines in the US, which now allows the use of drones for commercial use.

Because drones, when controlled by a skilled technician, can provide unique angles, particularly from above a stadium or an athlete, or close ups of athletes who are far from areas where cameramen or spectators watch.

Drones can currently move at speeds of 64 kph (40 mph). They can venture as far as 1.2 kilometers (.75 miles) away from the controller, which is a pretty wide berth. And battery life for a drone is about 20 minutes. These specs are true as of this writing, but I’m sure it’s already an outdated reality as this technology will advance rapidly.

Yes, there are fears that a drone will plop out of the sky and interfere with an athlete’s performance. People will point to the drone falling just behind a skiier at the Sochi Olympics. But the benefit, in terms of the birds-eye-view images and up-close perspectives in sports where such access was not possible, will outweigh the risk.

Expect to see incredibly creative use of drones at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Flying Dutchmen medal podium 1964
The medalists in the Flying Dutchman class yachting event on the podium at the Olympic Games, Enoshima, Japan, 21st October 1964. The gold medalists are Earle Wells (front) and Helmer Pedersen (1930 – 1987), of New Zealand. The silver medalists are Keith Musto (front) and Tony Morgan of Great Britain. The silver medallists are Buddy Melges (far right) and William Bentsen (obscured), of the USA.

Buddy Melges and Bill Bentsen had completed their first two of the seven races in Enoshima. It was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the pair from Wisconsin were doing so-so in the Flying Dutchman-class sailing competition: they finished tenth in the first race, but second in the second race. The third race, however, was a disaster.

“We were leading the (third) race,” Melges told me over the phone. “So we put up the spinnaker (the sail), which we should not have done. Our rudder broke, and our mast jumped out of the socket.” Dead in the water, they waited to be rescued. A large ship, part of the Japan Self Defense Forces, which were playing various roles in the Tokyo Olympics, approached Melges and Bentsen’s boat, named Widgeon. But the Japanese barge was coming on hard.

“This big profile was blowing down on us pretty fast! The captain saw our huge eyeballs and us waving our hands. He threw his vehicle in reverse, but he just missed crushing us. He almost sunk us!”

Self Defense Force at Enoshima
From the book, The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

Having just averted disaster, the barge brought the men and the boat back to shore. The Flying Dutchmen competition was held over seven days during the Tokyo Games. There was a four-day break between the fourth and fifth races, but unfortunately for Melges and Bentsen, there was no break between the third and fourth races.

“When we got back to shore, we got the Japanese boat repairers on it,” Melges said. “They were busier than hell all night long. We had to jump in and lend a hand because we thought there was no way they were going to get our boat out on time.” Additionally, the Americans needed a little help from the Canadians. The Widgeon’s rudder was made of plywood, so it simply wasn’t strong enough. In the spirit of sportsmanship, Paul Henderson of the Canadian Flying Dutchman team, shared a solid mahogany rudder with his competitor south of the border.

Melges and Bentsen went to bed at 6am on the morning of October 15, and woke up a few hours later to one of the few fine days during the Tokyo Olympics. With the wind blowing North Northeast at a wind speed of 10 m/s, Melges and Bentsen took to the water and shot out to a second place finish.

While the Widgeon finished tenth of the 21 boats in the first race, and was DQ’ed in the third race, they finished second in the second, fourth and fifth races, before dropping to third in the sixth race. In these sailing competitions, points are heavily weighted to top three finishes, so Melges and Bentsen were in strong contention for gold before starting the seventh and final race.

“We were in nice shape going into the last race,” Melges said. “We had expectations of a gold medal. We were a minute away from an imaginary line, the finish line, and we were in a perfect position as the wind was favoring us on the left side of the course. But there was this Star boat, tuning up before its race. He shouldn’t have been there, and he was right in our wind. He was blanketing our wind.”

The Widgeon lost its wind and Melges said that his boat almost sank, so close to golden glory. They ended up in tenth in the final race, giving them enough points to take third place.

“Even to this day, I tell people I didn’t do well,” said Melges. “But my rudder won bronze.”

Canadian Flying Dutchman Team 1964
Canadian athletes compete in the Team’s Flying Dutchman during the Tokyo Olympic on October 15, 1964 in Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan.

sailing in guanabara bay_AP

The head of sailing’s governing body threatened Saturday to move all Olympic sailing events out of polluted Guanabara Bay unless the water is cleaner and floating rubbish is removed.

http://globalnews.ca/news/2180470/sailing-officials-threatens-to-move-olympic-sailing-from-polluted-bay/

Fusanori Nakajima at Enoshima 3He’s taken pictures of America’s Cup skippers Ted Turner and Dennis Conner, the regatta at the bicentennial birthday party in New York Harbor, as well as the sailing competitions at the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964.

Fusanori Nakajima, who’s lived most of his life in New York, is enjoying life back in Japan. Below are a few of his photographs, which are now on display at the Enoshima Yacht Club, where I caught up with him.

Photograph by Fusanori Nakajima: 5.5 meter competition at 1964 Tokyo Olympics
Photograph by Fusanori Nakajima: 5.5 meter competition at 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Nakajima, who goes by the name “Fred” in the US, recollects being very busy with the Olympic work….taking shots all day in the water, and then driving back home to develop the film, and starting all over the next day. As he was asked by the Japan Olympic Committee to take on this job, he was provided an official JOC car