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Anne Arundel 100
Coach Ward Talks of his Olympic Experience
by Barbara Geehan, River Gazette Editor
St. Mary’s College of Maryland Director of Sailing Bill Ward’s trip to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games as a sailing coach reinforced the axiom: Expect the unexpected, he says.
“We expected a lot of light winds and got them. We had long delays both on and off the water. Yet, at the other extreme, we had a storm with 25-knot winds and driving rain. About half the regatta was contested in excellent sailing conditions, but in wind directions we hadn’t seen before in Qingdao.”
Ward was there to coach U.S. Sailing Team member Andrew Campbell in the Laser class. Ward met Campbell when he was a rising international star at Georgetown University, where Ward coached sailing before coming to St. Mary’s in 2006.
Campbell won a gold medal at the Youth World Championships in the Laser class in 2002 and came in seventh at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the Athens Games in 2003. He was named College Sailor of the Year in 2006 and has been out on the international Laser circuit full-time with Ward coaching him as often as his College schedule allows, including the China Olympics Trials, which Campbell won.
“The U.S. Sailing Team allows individual sailors to bring their personal coaches to the Games,” says Ward.
In two trips to China, all Ward saw of Beijing was the airport. Both a training trip and the Olympic sailing were held about an hour’s flight away in the satellite venue of Qingdao. They elected their boatwright, who is in charge of all boat repairs, to represent them at Opening Ceremonies.
“Arriving for the Games was a different experience than only a month earlier when we came for training,” he says. Everything was very organized, and there were English-speaking volunteers at every turn to guide you around the airport.
“The new airport in Beijing is the largest building in the world,” Ward says. “It’s big enough that I think they have a hard time controlling the indoor climate. When we arrived this time, it was a very hazy day outside and somehow that haze and humidity made its way inside the building. When you looked out from the upper levels, it was like there was an indoor fog.”
The renowned thick brown smog outside that all of us TV watchers learned about “was so bad in June you couldn’t see to the other side of the airport. The situation was much improved in July and August,” Ward says, adding he was not sure if that was due to pollution controls or some strong cold fronts.
Qingdao did not have the air-quality issues like Beijing, but water pollution was a major problem. “Sewage treatment as we know it does not exist in China; everything just goes straight into the ocean,” he says. “In the last two years, they have extended the sewage outflow pipes far offshore, which has improved the near-coastal water quality. The algae problem that received so much attention had been cleared up by the Games. I have no idea how they did it, but there was a huge perimeter of fishing nets that surrounded the sailing area maintained by a large fleet of boats.”
Campbell competed in the Laser class sailboat, the boat used for the men’s single-handed discipline. The Laser has been around since the early 1970s and is one of the most popular classes in the world with almost 200,000 boats. (The College has several.) It also was the largest sailing class at the Olympics with 43 entries and is widely regarded as the toughest fleet in the Olympics. Ward says the boats, rigging and sails are all supplied to competitors at the Games, so sailors have identical equipment. Also, the boats are relatively simple, so no competitor has a distinct edge in boat speed. “This makes for tough, close racing where every small mistake is punished,” says Ward.
Laser races are not scored on time, but by finishing position. “The general public marvels at the razor-thin margins separating gold from silver in races such as in swimming and track,” says Ward. “The truth is the competition in all Olympic sports is that close. At the pinnacle of any sport, the competitors are very evenly matched and sailing is no different.”
After three races, or about one third of the way through the event, Campbell was tied with the eventual gold medal winner. “Then,” says Ward, “things didn’t break our way and we ended up in the middle of the pack. It was a disappointing finish knowing that we were so close and feeling that it wasn’t his best performance. That’s life at the Olympics, razor-thin margins between the best and the rest.”
Ward lived in a hotel a five-minute bike ride from the venue. Qingdao, he says, is a resort town of seven million with streets filled with luxury vehicles, an impressive skyline, and giant housing developments going up everywhere. “You don’t really appreciate how huge China is and how massive the population is until you’ve been there,” he says.
The village at the sailing venue will become an Intercontinental Hotel after the Games, so it was quite a bit nicer than the village in Beijing, says Ward. “One of the really nice features was a big high-definition TV in every room. The village had 40 channels of Olympic coverage, including live feeds from every venue. It had to be the best Olympic TV- viewing in the world.
“There were even several channels devoted to sailing that showed the live feed from the day’s racing, upcoming schedules, and scores for every class.”
Now, it is back to the real world. Campbell is debating another Olympic campaign or joining the workforce; Ward spent recent weeks moving his office into the new River Center and preparing for the new school year.
Did he see anyone famous while in China? Well, he was hoping for an upgrade to business class on the 13-hour plane trip back home. “But as I started to turn on the charm with the gate agent, I looked over and saw Béla Karolyi and the U.S. Gymnastics team. No chance, no upgrade for me. I flew back in economy plus – that’s five inches of extra leg room, which is not bad.”