UCI Sailing: A Team of Their Own

Twenty-six championship banners hang on the north end of the Bren Events Center, eight of which – the most by any varsity sport at UC Irvine – are claimed by sailing. These eight championship banners are bridges, bridges to a time when sailing donned the title “varsity sport,” to a time when the sport was a force to be reckoned with and to a time when sailing had the full support of UCI Athletics.

But in the summer of 2009, UCI sailing fell on hard times. Sailing, along with swimming and diving and crew, were all budget-cut causalities and removed from UCI’s varsity sports. Swimming and diving were cut entirely, while crew and sailing were moved down to club sports. The demotion hurt the program and all those involved. Head Coach Mike Pinckney was forced to leave. Students involved with the program were no longer treated like varsity athletes – they no longer had access to Crawford Athletics Complex and their priority registration was revoked. UCI Athletics cut its funding and support.

“The biggest thing we lost was school support,” Blair Johnston, a four-year member of UCI sailing said. “We were just getting shot down and they weren’t offering any suggestions of what we could do. We all wanted to compete.”

Being forced into a club sport hurt the program as they struggled last year, because they needed to find ways to hold each other accountable without an authority figure.

After dealing with adversity, the 2010-2011 sailing team, led by Johnston and president William Larsen, has a chance to resurrect its once-storied history. The sailing team will have two opportunities to return to the promised land. On May 23-26, the women’s sailing team will travel to Oregon, where they will compete against 18 other schools and attempt to finish in the top nine to qualify for the championship race. On May 27-29, the men’s sailing team will vie for the program’s ninth national championship in team racing, a 3-on-3 competition between two teams.

In the last 20 years, schools from the northeastern part of the country have won the event 19 times. In team racing, six out of 14 qualifying schools are from the Northeast and the majority of them are varsity sports. In the women’s racing competition, nine out of the 18 schools attempting to reach the final round are from the Northeast.

“We are definitely the small guys in this competition,” Larsen said. “Those are the best schools in the country, but we are confident we can do well.”

The competition will not be easy, but for the UCI sailing team nothing has come easy, as they have grown accustomed to dealing with adversity.

Throughout the year, the Anteaters have been faced with schools from the east coast, schools like Tufts University, whose sailing program is the second-highest funded varsity sport behind its Division-III football program.

“When we competed against Tufts, their coach told me he was trying to raise $2 million for a new boat house,” Larsen said. “But we are lucky if we raise $10,000 or even $5,000 from donations.”

Despite not getting the same amount of funding like other schools, UCI sailing has still managed to raise money for the program. With the help of his teammates, Larsen has applied for grants, hosted alumni events and the team has received a tremendous amount of help from alumni who are generous with their donations.

Money has not been the only problem Larsen, Johnston and the rest of the team have had to overcome. Since they can no longer use Crawford’s facilities, the team has to work out at the Anteater Recreation Center, but not as a team, because ARC rules state that only personal trainers can lead team workouts, and sailing doesn’t have one. So they must workout individually or in pairs while still maintaining their sense of unity. When it comes to traveling, the sailing team cannot rent a van, because club sports cannot get insurance on a team van, meaning they must carpool.

The biggest obstacle the sailing team has had to tackle, however, is achieving success without a head coach. When UCI Athletics refused to support sailing, the team lost a coach in Pinckney who once led the U.S. Paralympics sailing team to gold.

“When we go up against other teams that have coaches it is intimidating, because they are worked so hard by them,” Johnston said. “As much as we practice and run our own practices, we are still two steps behind every team that has a coach.”

Despite not having a coach, the sailing team has depended on alumni for support. Former Anteater Eric Knopf voluntarily agreed to help coach the team and will travel to Oregon for nationals.

“He has a real positive attitude. He is going to bring us up when we are down and bring us down when we are up,” Larsen said of Knopf.

In a sport where mentality plays a huge role, the sailing team has maintained a positive outlook during their most trying times.

“We all have to count on each other,” Johnston said. “We have to use each other as coaches and as a support system.”

They’ve refused to back down from adversity. The team qualified for nationals, as a result of all the hard work and dedication they have put into the season. They practice every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and even Fridays when they are not traveling. They practice against Newport Harbor High School and Corona Del Mar High School, which boast some of the top high school sailors in the nation.

And their determination and persistence has paid off. They enter nationals as the 16th-ranked team in the nation and are the dark horse in this year’s competition.

“This team will make the qualifying rounds tough. They will be fast … and they know how to team race,” Stanford’s Head Coach John Vandemoer said of UCI sailing.

For members like Larsen, who came to UCI because sailing was a varsity sport but had his dream ripped away before he even stepped foot on campus, a championship would be the culmination of all the hard work he has put into the season.

For a senior like Johnston, who stuck with sailing all four years, who had her dream shattered midway through her collegiate career and won’t receive an athletic medal come graduation like all the other varsity athletes at UCI, a national championship would mean everything and more.

“A championship would mean we did it,” Johnston said. “It would show that we could do it without [UCI Athletics]. It would show how dedicated we are to the sport. We take a hit but we build on it.”