Shelter Island Olympian: a breather before the 2012 Games

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Amanda Clark, left, and Sarah Lihan on Monday on the deck of Amanda and her husband Greg’s house at Camp Quinpet, overlooking Crescent Beach.

The two Olympians seemed mighty relaxed for a pair of women on whom the eyes of the sailing world will be fixed in three weeks when they vie for gold in the 2012 summer Olympics.

Shelter Island’s Amanda Clark and her sailing partner Sarah Lihan of Fort Lauderdale were taking a break on Shelter Island this week. On Saturday evening, there was a send-off celebration at the Shelter Island Yacht Club for them. They set aside Monday for interviews with the Shelter Island Reporter, News12 and WNBC-TV at Amanda and her husband Greg Nissen’s cozy house overlooking Crescent Beach from the campus of Camp Quinipet, where Greg is director.

In bare feet, shorts and navy blue Olympic polo shirts, they seemed cool, calm and collected as they talked about their sailing histories, their work together and their approach to next month’s sea battle off Weymouth, about 120 miles southwest of the Olympic track and field events in London.

“One down, two to go,” they said of the day’s press chores after they’d finished a 45-minute chat with the hometown paper.
Ms. Lihan, a 2010 Yale grad, was headed to New Haven and elsewhere on Tuesday to see friends before reuniting with Ms. Clark and the whole 17-member U.S. Olympic sailing team at the Larchmont Yacht Club in Westchester on Saturday, July 14 for a send-off party sponsored by Maclaren, the British stroller manufacturer. The next day, July 15, the whole team, which is sponsored by Sperry Top-sider, will board a flight from Newark to London.

After all their training, both mental and physical, and success in world-class competition, the two veteran sailors were having no trouble feeling good about the climactic moments ahead.

“There is a lot of noise,” Ms. Clark admitted, that can be distracting to athletes trying to get their heads as well as their bodies and skills in just the right place at the right time. “There’s a lot of self-promotion” required of Olympic competitors in order to “build awareness” and raise funds, she explained.

“On the other hand,” it’s a good thing “if we can use the energy to get a little bit of excitement about it and look forward to the next event. At this point, we definitely are building up the energy to a peak.”

Ms. Clark said she and Ms. Lihan were “close to our full potential if not at it, but we only strengthen that every time we go sailing.”

The Summer Games officially start on July 27. Ms. Clark and Ms. Lihan’s women’s 470 two-person dinghy class will race August 3 through 10 off Weymouth, where early last month they won a silver medal in the final pre-Olympic World Cup regatta, jumping from sixth place to second when they won the final day’s medal race. And after the winter and spring of training, practice and international competition, which included qualifying for the Olympic team by beating their American competition last December in Australia, they have established themselves in World Cup ranking as the number-one women’s 470 team.
The ranking system is a little opaque, even to them, they said: They are number three in another class of world ranking. But in either case, “We’re definitely on the podium,” Ms. Clark said.

Ms. Clark, at age 30, is a veteran Olympian: she tried to qualify for the 2000 Olympics — the year she graduated from Shelter Island High School — in Sydney but didn’t make the team; she was an alternate in 2004 for the team so did not go to Athens, the year she graduated from Connecticut College. Four years ago, she made the team and went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she and her former crew, Sarah Chin, placed 12th.

This will be Ms. Lihan’s first Olympics. She tried to make the team as a solo sailor at age 19 in 2008; her father, a real estate entrepreneur, tried to make the Olympics himself 24 years earlier in the men’s heavyweight dinghy class and missed qualifying by a point. The women’s international sailing world is a small one; Ms. Clark knew Ms. Lihan and had coached her a while ago at an event in New Jersey. “She had always been on my radar,” Ms. Clark said, and she was among several sailors who sought the crew spot on the Clark 470 after Ms. Chin announced in 2011 that she would leave Team Alpha Graphics, as Ms. Clark’s Team Go Sail has also been known. Under a tight schedule with Olympic qualifiers weeks away, Ms. Clark met with the finalist candidates in Florida last winter and after sailing with them chose Sarah.

“It was clear that Sarah was the best option on many levels,” said Ms. Clark.

Since then, Ms. Lihan’s friends tell her they barely recognize her. The muscles she built up to sail solo gave her a bulkier look than she has now. A tall woman, she stretches over the side, hiking to keep the boat in balance with wind and water. Competition photos show her hanging out over the side almost like a cowgirl hanging onto a bronco while the smaller but equally athletic Ms. Clark hunkers down at the tiller handling the mainsheet.

Ms. Clark said Ms. Lihan generally calls the tactical shots on the upwind legs because she can see better; on the speedy downwind legs, Ms. Lihan is busy managing the spinnaker, which also blocks her view, so Ms. Clark generally makes the decisions.

The duo will have a little time after they get to England to tweak their 470’s equipment, get adjusted to the Olympic housing and security procedures at Weymouth and rest up for the big event. Ms. Clark said they’d ease up on their steady regimen of strength training a bit because they did not want to compete exhausted — something she said they did on purpose over the past half year during the Olympic trials and world competition just to make the racing that much harder.

Ms. Clark has been sailing all her life. She is a member of the “Bass Creek Clarks,” not the South Ferry Clarks, the folks who own and operate the ferry to North Haven. The Bass Creek Clarks are water people. Her father, Dennis, is a house painting contractor but, when Amanda was born, he and his wife were making a living working as baymen, fishing and shellfishing. He’s always been into sailing. Her grandfather, 97-year-old Toots Clark, was a boat captain and a bayman. Her mother Ellen has been a corporate recruiter in the biotech industry for 15 years. The family, which includes an older brother and sister, have been Shelter Island Yacht Club members since Amanda was born. She learned to sail there.

Friendly little races and leisurely day sails were never her thing. She has always wanted to “try to sail the boat as fast as I could,” she said — and that requires a lot of skills and strengths, both mental and physical. While her mother and father supported her competitive sailing initially, raising money for her to compete in the Optimist class when she was 13, Ms. Clark’s foray into international competition in 1998 required sponsorships and support from the Yacht Club and the wider community. “I never would have been able to do it without the support of the Island,” Ms. Clark said.

Ms. Lihan has been sailing all her life too, growing up in Ft. Lauderdale where her grandmother — an athlete who performed as a synchronized swimmer — moved from Ohio in 1951. Her father was a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point in New York and her sister is now attending the U.S. Naval Academy.

Ms. Lihan sailed competitively at Yale, where her coach encouraged her to try out for the Olympic team even as she sailed for the school. She came in third place at the 2007 trials in Newport; the woman who made the team in her class, 2008 Laser gold medalist Anna Tunnicliffe, had taken Ms. Lihan under her wing by then, having moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2004.

Among the challenges both Olympians listed for any competitive sailing were a good start; smart tactics that vary according to sometimes changing or unpredicted conditions; getting speed out of a boat; handling a boat with command and without errors; and finally “a little luck.” But both talked the most about learning from mistakes and recovering from them quickly.
“It’s hard, still,” Ms. Clark said. “You know you’re going to make them and sometimes it feels like you’re the only ones out there making mistakes. But we’ve learned better than most how to move on.”

“It is one of the biggest improvements we’ve made in the last six months,” Ms. Lihan added.

Anderson/SAILINGPIX.DK PHOTO | Sarah Lihan and Amanda Clark last month competing off Weymouth, the same waters where the 2012 Olympics will be sailed beginning later this month.