Playbook for Starting Your Olympic Campaign

By Zach Brown

Within the community of sailing there exists a wealth of knowledge on the subject of running an Olympic campaign, but it is difficult to access that information and formulate a plan that fits an individual’s unique situation. The goal of this article is to supply sailors with the tools they need to plan a campaign and get it started.

An Olympic campaign is truly a war of attrition. Those who battle their way through and survive are the teams you see at the Olympic Games. Bermuda’s 2012 Olympic 49er crew Zander Kirkland smartly stated that a doublehanded campaign can be boiled down to four components: sailing performance, money, team dynamic, and injuries. A strong construction of all four pillars delivers a successful campaign, but a weakness in one pillar affects the integrity of the entire structure. For example, it is difficult to train, compete, and get proper coaching if there isn’t any money. Or, it is difficult to get the results if there isn’t a positive team dynamic. When planning a campaign, it is important to start with these four pillars and sketch out how to build and connect each of them.


Choose Your Boat

An individual needs to have the proper body size for the boat, the boat must have security in the Olympics, and the boat needs to be fun to sail. Body weight and height are critical to performance in sailing. A 160 pound male sailor should consider Kiteboarding, crewing a 470, skippering a 49er, or sailing the Nacra 17. A 130 pound female should not campaign a Radial, but rather consider skippering a 470, skippering a 49er FX, or sailing the Nacra 17.

It is paramount to select a boat that maintains a high level of security as a continuing Olympic class boat. The safety of a boat’s existence in the Olympics over the next few quadrenniums is not a factor to dismiss when considerable time and money are on the line. There are obvious choices like the Laser and Laser Radial that easily meet the strict qualifications imposed by ISAF. The 470 was rumored to get the boot for the 2016 Olympics, but strong support from the Asian and European delegates maintained the boat’s Olympic status. A considerable amount of research should be put into the security of an Olympic class boat when selecting the perfect boat for an individual’s campaign.

An obvious feature that is constantly overlooked by sailors considering an Olympic campaign is fun. If a boat is not fun to sail and race, then don’t campaign the boat. The average Olympic sailor spends more than 175 days of the year on the water. Select a challenging boat that is exciting to practice and race for 50% of the year.


Choose Your Partner

Selecting the best teammate for an Olympic campaign is almost as important as picking a husband or wife because a team lives, sails, travels, organizes, and fundraises together. Teammates should not have to compromise on every detail of the campaign in order to work together. A good teammate does not have to be a best friend, but that person should at the least be a friend in the making. When the race is on the line, the optimal teammate is one that empowers the skipper or crew to be their best.

Essential skills of an ideal teammate include sailing ability, organizational aptitude, marketing talent, fitness inclination, dedication, and perseverance. Sailing talent alone will not get a campaign to the Olympics. The work load between teammates needs to be balanced so that it truly feels like a team. Looking back to the four pillars of a campaign, if the team dynamic is compromised, then performance will be negatively impacted.


Get in Contact

One of the first orders of business for a budding Olympic campaign is to reach out to the US Sailing Olympic director and staff. Making contact with these individuals is critical to success because they control many factors including coaching, funding, resources, and much more. The US Sailing Team staff has information on team clinics, schedules, boat setup tricks, and boat tuning numbers.

The National and North American class representatives are resources of knowledge that will help new class members find equipment to buy, local teams to contact, and domestic and international regatta schedules. Do not be afraid to reach out to current Olympic campaigners for advice and questions because they have all gone through the same start-up process.

Create a Business Plan

Every Olympic campaign needs a business plan. Olympic sailors are the CEOs of their own non-profit companies so it is important to treat the campaign like a business. Create short and long-term goals that are obtainable and outline a roadmap to get from step one to the final step on the podium at the Games. Do not be fooled into dismissing the skills learned in school. Take speech courses, pay attention in accounting classes, master excel, and own PowerPoint presentations.


One of the more difficult duties of an Olympic campaign is to recognize each line item expense that will occur and assign an accurate estimate. Taking an accounting class and creating a personal budget are good places to start. Boat and equipment expenses, sailing gear, vehicle and fuel, flights, ferries and tolls, housing, food, regatta fees, fitness, health insurance, and fundraising costs are relevant macro line items. The next step in budgeting is to breakdown the macro components into manageable cost items. Take boat equipment and expenses for example. When purchasing a new boat the following must be considered: cost of boat, foreign exchange price, boat accessories like covers and dolly, customs agent fees, shipping, customized lines, shackles, and sails.


Money is a critical piece to every Olympic campaign, hence its recognition as being one of the four pillars of a campaign. Simply put, a sailing campaign cannot get started without some considerable initial investments like a boat. Money is needed to have the best equipment so that a team is spending most its time on the water training instead of on land fixing an old boat. Money is needed to travel to regattas in Europe and to race against large talented fleets. And, money is needed to hire good coaches to jump a team to the next level.

Second to sailing talent, fundraising might be the most important skill required in an Olympic campaign. The best way to approach the overwhelming number on the bottom line of a budget is to sketch out channels of potential income and rank them in order of value. Income channels include family, close friends, fellow alumni of schools and universities, rotary or non-profit organizations, private coaching, big boat programs, etc. Another important step for fundraising is to set up an account with a local sailing organization that has a 501.C.3 to receive tax deductible donations. It is necessary to develop marketing and communication skills in order to sell the campaign and attract sponsors and donors.

International Comparisons

Many of the ideas presented above are relevant for all Olympic campaigns across every country. Stu McNay, a two time Olympian weighs on the differences between the US playbook and the British system: “The US playbook asks a lot on the budget and management side from its athletes while other countries not so much. [Other countries like England and Australia] often have logistical coordinators for all travel arrangements and accommodation. Also, they manage budgets and raise funds.” The US system requires its sailors to perform two roles as a campaign manager and athlete while most other countries ask their sailors to just be an athlete. McNay added that maturity and the ability to make decisions are important no matter which system an Olympic campaign fits under.

One consideration that should not be overlooked: the American Olympic sailing program develops relevant management and logistical skills that are valuable for most jobs. Being just an athlete is a lot easier than being both an athlete and a CEO of a non-profit organization. Reentering the workforce after an Olympic campaign is difficult, but after marketing an Olympic campaign for years, the task of selling one’s skills and story to an employer should be easy.

The US Olympic campaign is quite the job description. The question of whether or not the management, budgeting, and logistical functions of a US campaign inhibit sailors from reaching their full potential as an athlete is another story for another time.

Good Luck

Campaigning for the Olympics in sailing is an incredibly difficult task. Teams commit three, six, ten, or even twenty years to possibly go to the Games and win a medal. There is no guarantee. The lifestyle is difficult because life is all packed up in one big suitcase, it is difficult to be in one location for an extended period of time, it is difficult to maintain a relationship, and it difficult to continue a career during a campaign or reenter the workforce after one. Those who are or will be committed to an Olympic campaign, I salute you!