Gus Miller, my first and most loved coach. Here a story that outlines how passionate he is. Memorable the Cadiz Finn Gold Cup, where he won a race at age 56 and all sailors carried him on the shoulder to collect his daily prize. Here you can read his story, one that trascends sailing but shows how passion is everything. Gus spent nearly all his momey promoting Waterwise, a teaching method in schools that makes young students aware of the sea, teaching them to swim, to row, to sail, to build their own boat. He is one of this magic characters you meet while on the olympic trail for glory.
Sharing training for and coaching during the Olympic Games has been an important piece of my life’s journey.
My first experience with anything Olympic was as a wrestler. In 1955 I was serving as a rifleman with the Fifth Marines, 1st Mar Div, just returned from Korea, when I learned the 1956 USA Olympic Wrestling Trials would be held in nearby Los Angeles. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton had a wrestling team that was having tryouts in a few months so I thought I’d prepare and see if I would be accepted. Every morning at 4 AM I’d go running hard up and down the surrounding mountains and be back in time to fall out for muster and rifle calisthenics. I made the Base wrestling squad and later qualified for the Final Trials. One practice partner on that Base Wrestling Team was heavyweight Dale Lewis who became a Greco Roman Olympian and later a well known professional; with Dale I learned how to use leverage and speed with someone much heavier and stronger.
My first Trials opponent was Bill Smith, the defending 160 pound Gold Medalist. My coach, Lt. Bill Elwood warned me about Bill’s whizzer move but I couldn’t cope with it and got pinned a little more than half way through the 15 minute match. Later I watched Bill pin the powerful and undefeated Dan Hodge with a whizzer; there was absolute silence and then a murmur of disbelief from all those watching. Then came my first observation of gross unfairness in the administration of the Olympic Games: because he was a school teacher who had coached some high school wrestlers, the IOC President Avery Brundage ruled Bill Smith a professional and therefore ineligible for the Olympics.
Cliff Keen, Michigan’s legendary coach was at those Trials and liking what I saw of him added to the reasons to go to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor the Fall of 1956. Cliff, a National Champion for Oklahoma State, had been on the 1924 Olympic Wrestling team but could not go and compete because of an injury. In 1948 Cliff had been chosen as the manager (coach) of the US Olympic Wrestling Team.
It turned out that Cliff got Bill Smith a job teaching at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School so the next year I had the chance to workout with Bill in Cliff’s practice room. A few years later, Cliff hired Doug Blubaugh as his assistant in the practice room. Doug was the 1960 160 pound Gold Medalist who I first saw at the 1956 Final Trials. In 1960 Doug was named the Outstanding Wrestler in the World by the International Wrestling Federation.
From Cliff Keen, Bill Smith and Doug Blubaugh I learned first hand about the qualities of character, intelligence, attention to the details of skill, competitiveness, determination, practice preparation, joy and empathy it took to be at the level of an Olympic Champion in the most ancient and toughest sport of all.
A turn to sailing came in 1960 when I did not qualify for the Final Wrestling Trials but learned that the Finn Trials would be held in provided Finns in Marblehead. Perfect for me as I had been frostbite racing for a couple of years and had the hard physical condition and competitive attitude of a wrestler. Miscommunication resulted in my missing those Finn Trials which left me angry and with a sense of unfinished business in the Finn.
In 1964 a shoulder injury ended my wrestling career. I had become interested in skiing, frostbiting, crewing on a Flying Dutchman (racing against Buddy Melges, Bill Bensen, Ted Turner and Paul Henderson among others) and ocean racing. While I bought an old Polish built wooden Finn in 1966, my Polish mast broke in 1968 and I skipped the 1972 Finn Trials to go ocean racing. By 1972 I was one of the few Americans who was a member by invitation of both the Storm Trysail and Royal Ocean Racing Clubs.
In 1973 I did well in the Finn National Championship held near Ann Arbor on Lake St. Claire in Detroit so I next went to the Canadian Olympic Racing Kingston (CORK) and came fifth behind Henry Sprague, Brit David Howlett and Italian Mauro Pelaschier. That success meant that at age 38 I could make a choice between going in the first Whitbread Round the World Race or doing an Olympic Finn Campaign. Nick Orlandea, a former Romanian bicycle racer who was writing his thesis in Ann Arbor, challenged me to do the Finn for which I also still had a sense of unfinished business.
The Finn learning journey went from 60th at the 1974 FGC in Long Beach to third at the 1976 Europeans in Port Camargue, second at the US Trials and North American Champion at age 41. Along that journey I enjoyed some wonderful training partners without whom it would not have been possible including American John Eggers, Aussie John Bertrand, Brit David “Sid” Howlett, Canadian Sandy Riley, Soviet Andrey Balashov and Swede Guy Lilligren. The teaching staff at Eastern Michigan University supported me by making it possible for the away time to travel to and compete in major Finn regattas. The Ann Arbor Bank also lent me the necessary money at no interest to make it possible.
After finishing second in the Finn Trials, Peter Commette asked me to be his training partner in Kingston. After finishing training with Peter, I was asked to teach a Pilipino who had never sailed a Finn so that he would be competitive. That accreditation opened the door to watching the 1976 Olympic Regatta and that changed my entire view of the Olympics. Before then, I regarded the Olympics to be as nearly as competitive as the Finn Gold Cup but just more difficult for an American to qualify for. After that, I regarded the Olympics as a giant international cultural event with many different levels, vehicles and stories beyond the competitions. I didn’t know it at the time, but my international sailing coaching career had begun.
In general, the Finn is such a demanding boat to race well that class members are very supportive of each other. They learn that the challenge is the boat, themselves and not the other competitors whom they need to get better. Finnsters are often great friends ashore but on the water they have the will to destroy their mates. The result of this shared team effort is that the level of racing is higher than that of any other class in the world of sailing. Another result is that the Finn has the most highly developed and democratically run organization in sailing. The exception to this is the Olympics where many get silly uptight and things can get really, really ugly. It is also where good character produces some outstanding examples of fair sportsmanship.
Always a very deep Finn fleets in preparation and talent: at each of the last dozen Olympic Finn Regattas there have usually been six or more where it would not surprise you if they won Gold, a dozen who could Silver and 15 who could Bronze. It depends on who can best sustain a deep, open concentration on the tasks at hand. There are always sharp surprises and near misses. While there is an element of chance, deep preparation often produces what seems like luck. In all of this are revealing lessons about the nature of our minds.
In 1976 I was surprised that David Howlett didn’t Gold as he could destroy the fleet in moderate and heavy winds, especially offwind. The 1980 boycott was a great disappointment as the big question was which of many Americans would win the Trials and Gold; a great opportunity to advance glasnost and perestroika was missed. In 1984 it seemed either Lasse or Esko would win Gold but someone half cut Lasse’s outhaul so it would break and Esko unfairly was not given redress when the provided mast step weld broke while he was in the lead.
Peter Holmberg’s Silver in 1988 was not a surprise because he was getting excellent results in a beater of a Finn and had moved to Pusan for long training sessions. 1988 was also when many guys with medal chances surprisingly could not handle the dangerous conditions dead downwind. 1992 was when Craig Monk had to win the last race and have eight others have a bad race in order to get Bronze which happened. In 1996 the Bermuda High drifted across Florida and veered the wind patterns 30° so the Americans who had engineered and studied the patterns in great detail were lost. Mateusz had gone on a vacation far away in the mountains for a while just before so was fresh and focused and won Gold.
In the last race of 2000, some with medal chances went right toward Snake Island when it was obvious one had to go left across the current first. The big surprise was Luca’s Silver which he accomplished by working hard with an excellent sports psychologist. 2004 was Ben’s but what I remember most was the intense hammer and tongs battle going on at the back of the fleet. 2008 was memorable when Zach got a surprising jump start in the early races and was able to keep the momentum going. 2012 was memorable for the intense Medal Race and the dual between Jonas and Ben which would not have happened but for a couple of slips by Jonas early on. Jonas certainly pushed Ben to the wall. That Medal Race was also the highlight of the TV coverage with the whole world watching Finn sailors in a titanic struggle.
Expect more of the same in Rio because technique has leapfrogged technology which has the pushed new technique so the Finn Fleet is just as strong and deep as ever.