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Smooth Sailing in Troubled Waters

U.S. sailors hauled in a bounty of gold and silver from the polluted seas off the coast of Spain

Four years ago, in a raging sea and howling 30-knot wind off the coast of South Korea, Star-class skipper Mark Reynolds and crew Hal Haenel were one leg away from winning the Olympic gold medal for the U.S. All they needed in the nine-mile final race was to reach the finish in fifth place or better. Even if they failed to do that, a British boat would have to win the race to ace them out of the gold. With two miles to go, Reynolds had his boat comfortably in third, ahead of the Brits, when a sudden gust of wind snapped his mast in half. Reynolds and Haenel were forced to abandon the race. While they were being towed back to the dock, the Brits passed two other boats and the Americans had to settle for the silver.

"It gave us a lot more drive this time, no question," said the 36-year-old Reynolds, a sailmaker from San Diego, after he and Haenel got U.S. yachting off to a flying start in Barcelona. Reading the light, shifting breezes of the Mediterranean to perfection—the conditions are similar to those off the coast of their native Southern California—Reynolds and Haenel built such a huge lead over the 26-boat Star-class field that they clinched the gold medal after six of seven races. They were taking no chances on last-minute disasters this time around. Since the rules of Olympic yachting allow competitors to throw out their worst race, Reynolds and Haenel, with five top-three finishes and an 11th, were able to sit out last Saturday's finale while the other boats battled for the silver. That was eventually won by New Zealand's Rod Davis, the Kiwis' skipper in this year's America's Cup trials.

The Star-class victory was just the start of a medal bonanza for the U.S. yachting contingent, which as of Monday had won one gold, five silver and two bronze in just nine events; the Soling class outcome was to be determined the next day. Winning silver for the U.S. were Brian Ledbetter (Finn class), Randy Smythe and Keith Notary (Tornado), Paul Foerster and Steve Bourdow (Flying Dutchman), Morgan Reeser and Kevin Burnham (men's 470) and Michael Gebhardt (men's Boardsail). The bronze medalists were Julia Trotman (Europe) and Jennifer Isler and Pamela Healy (women's 470).

"It's a momentum thing," said Reynolds, who cites the U.S. team's experience—four of the American entries had competed in earlier Olympics—as one of the reasons for its strong showing. "I learned a lot of little tricks from Dennis Conner. My father crewed for Conner [in the world championships in Seattle] in 1971, and I worked a lot on his boat. Basically, though, it's a matter of putting more hours into it than the next guy. Preparing the bottom of your boat better."

Of course the Americans had something of a home court advantage in Barcelona, having sailed at times in garbage-strewn waters. Haenel, who is lot operations director of the Hollywood Center Studio, may have unknowingly been prepped for the floating horrors of the Mediterranean by one of the movies recently staged on his studio lot: The Addams Family. "Yesterday we saw some kind of animal swimming around out there," Haenel reported on Saturday. "But we've sailed in Boston, and that's just as bad."

Among the other unsavory sightings tallied by Olympic sailors were these: Dead rats, bloated, legs up. Blue, stinking sludge. A dead goat. A dead dog, which the American Soling team identified as a golden retriever. A refrigerator with a live rat on top of it. A dead donkey.

Most of this, er, effluvia was probably washed into the Mediterranean via the Besos, cited by the European Economic Community in a recent report as the continent's filthiest river. Unfortunately, boardsailor Mike Gebhardt of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., may have lost a gold medal as the result of an encounter with flotsam. In the seventh race of his 10-race series, Gebhardt was cruising along in sixth place when his sailboard came to a virtual halt. Five competitors passed him before he could remove a plastic garbage bag that had wrapped around his center-board, and he finished the race in 11th place. As it turned out, Gebhardt lost the gold to Franck David of France by .4 of a point. Had he finished one place higher in any race, Gebhardt would have taken the gold. Instead, he added a silver medal to the bronze he had won in Seoul in 1988.

All the sailors agreed, however, that a year ago the waters off Barcelona had been much dirtier and that the yachting venue was generally a happening place. One could watch the races, for example, from the Olympic Village's topless beach—and vice versa. Royalty buffs were treated to a daily appearance by King Juan Carlos's son, Prince Felipe de Borbon, who was a crew member on Spain's Soling entry, which advanced to the match-racing round. Turns out the Olympics are an old family tradition in the House of Borbon. Felipe's sister, Cristina, competed in the 470 class at the 1988 Games. Their mother, Queen Sofia, sailed in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and their uncle, King Constantine of Greece, won the gold medal in the Dragon class in 1960. And King Juan Carlos himself sailed in the 1972 Munich Games.

Which is just the sort of image the U.S. yachting team would like to dispel. "We're trying to eliminate the term yachting from the Olympics and have them call it sailing," says Haenel. "The connotation is that it's a rich man's sport, and it's not."

"There are no rock stars or superstars on this team," says Jonathan Harley, Olympic director of U.S. Sailing. "We found out that Spain is giving each of its individual gold medalists $80,000 in cash and a million-dollar trust, which the athlete gets at age 50. [Spain's sailors won four gold medals in yachting.] We don't have that kind of money, and what funding we do have, we spread around."

"Sailing's a very individual sport," says Jonathan McKee of Seattle, the U.S. sailing coach in Barcelona. "But here everyone's been working together. That's one of the strengths of our team."

Chasing their dreams in a waste-infested sea, U.S. team members are the antithesis of the modern Olympian. Unencumbered by endorsements, out of sight of spectators (save the few who braved their way by boat into the festering brine), unpestered by reporters, these sailors compete without fanfare. What little applause they hear comes from their teammates and coaches. "People tell me, 'I didn't even know yachting was in the Olympics,' " says Haenel. "It's one of the oldest sports. It's been in the Olympics since 1900. But no one in the U.S. knows it. [NBC's] TripleCast isn't even showing us."

Fearful, no doubt, of complaints by weak-stomached viewers and the ASPCA. Maybe by 1996, anxious to show Americans winning medals, the pay-per-view folks will hop on board.




With Reynolds at the helm and Haenel on the edge, the duo built a lead it couldn't lose.



Prince Felipe (hiking out) took to the water to continue a family tradition of Olympic sailing.