U.S. Olympic Sailing Trials : Steele Scores First Boardsailing Victory

Times Staff Writer

At age 30, Scott Steele has been dragging his silver medal around the boardsailing course this week, trying to keep up with the next generation.

"I'm still looking for a good race," Steele said Saturday morning as the U.S. Olympic trials approached their midpoint.

He got it Saturday afternoon, posting his first victory in four races, although he still trails co-favorite Mike Gebhardt, 22, and two teen-age hotshots in the series.

"I would have thought that experience would help, and I'm sure it will," the Annapolis, Md., sailor said. "My chief rival (Gebhardt) is sailing real well, (but) maybe the kids will start to falter, (although) some of them are sailing surprisingly well."

The "kids" are products of the Olympic Yachting Committee's junior development program that started after Steele won his medal at Long Beach in 1984, a major breakthrough in a class dominated by Europeans.

Here, in '88, all that earns Steele is sarcasm.

"I have a great amount of respect for Mr . Steele," says Bert Rice Jr., waiting for a reaction, getting it, and chuckling at the ongoing joke in this mixed field of 45 competitors.

Rice, from Gulf Breeze, Fla., is the most surprising of four fast youngsters who are all 17, all cocky and all scrawny. But on a sailboard, skinny is usually fast.

After a pizza and a cola, Rice might hit 120 pounds, including his horn-rimmed glasses. But he has won two races and was third to Steele and Gebhardt Saturday to move into a second-place tie with Ted Huang of Los Altos.

After Rice and Huang, Mike O'Bryan, San Diego, in fifth place, and Robert Normann, Metairie, La., seventh, complete the upstart gang of four.

In the other four classes here seeking single survivors to send to Pusan, South Korea, Friday's front-running winners all repeated to tighten their grips: Pete Melvin, Long Beach, in Tornado; John Shadden, Long Beach, in men's 470; Allison Jolly, Valencia, in women's 470, and Paul Foerster, Corpus Christi, Tex., in Flying Dutchman, followed by brothers Ron and Steve Rosenberg, Long Beach.

As in '84, when sailboards joined the Olympics, the Americans are just hoping to be competitive with the Europeans, led by Robert Nagy of France. But they suffered a setback when the International Yacht Racing Union waited until only a year and a half ago to select the sailboard it would recommend to the International Olympic Committee for these Games.

Then the IYRU picked a Division II-type board made by the small Lechner company of West Germany, "And the Europeans gobbled 'em all up," said Major Hall, the U.S. boardsailing coach. "We had only one winter to sail them. (It was) the same old political thing that favors the Europeans."

The '84 Olympics used smaller, French-made Windgliders that were unavailable to U.S. sailors until a few months before their trials.

The upside, Hall said, is that "this is a much higher performance board, plus this time we're allowed to wear harnesses."

The harnesses and larger boards help the smaller sailors to be more competitive in stronger winds. In '84, Steele, then only 129 pounds, had to hope for light-wind days and got enough of them to finish second.

A downside is that the Division II boards allow a change of masts and sails according to wind and water conditions. With the Windglider, everybody sailed identical equipment.

"Not being a true one-design makes it a little confusing for me," Steele said. "You never know if it's you or the equipment. I just like to get on it and go."

The sailors face this situation daily, scanning the sea from the parking lot at First Beach on the backside of Newport.

"It's always a test," Steele said, squinting into the haze, "like right now I'm looking at which one of four different masts I'm gonna use, and which one of two sails."

Nearby, Gebhardt was saying, "When you start making decisions, that's when you start getting worried."

Rice? No problem.

"I like it when it's more shifty and tactical," he said. "I did a lot of my early sailing on sailboats when you had to make sail decisions and play the (wind) shifts.

"I can do it. I've worked 3 1/2 years for this."

Rice, who will be 18 on Aug. 25, is enrolled at Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey, a prep school for the Naval Academy. It was Adm. David G. Farragut who issued the order during the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay, "Damn the torpedoes . . . full speed!"

That's sort of how Rice feels about the veteran boardsailors.

"We've seen how fast they can go," Rice said. "We're closing the gap, but they still have a great depth of experience that we're just touching on."

Hall said that up to a few months ago, "We thought (the trials) might be a two-person regatta. Since '85, Gebhardt has been in a class by himself, and Scott has come back strong after laying off for two years.

"But all of a sudden we have several people capable of winning races."

Another is Sean Hawes, 22, of Redington Beach, Fla., who placed second in the opening race but was disqualified for being over the starting line before the gun.

He didn't know he'd been thrown out until he returned to the beach, but the next day he won.

"Sean's win was very significant," Hall said. "That's a guy that's got mental toughness."

But in the end, some insiders believe, it will still be a two-person regatta.

"I've been beating Mike in all the international events, but in national events he's been beating me," Steele said.

And in the three years before Steele made his comeback, Gebhardt won all but three regattas and was second in two of those, fifth in the other when his equipment broke. He thinks the emerging talent will push the Americans up to the Europeans' level.

"When we put it all together, we've got enough talent to match those guys," Gebhardt said. "We just haven't had the equipment."

John Shadden and Allison Jolly each won their third straight races, after opening seconds, in the men's and women's 470 classes. "We broke our jib halyard block five seconds after the start," Shadden said, "but our speed was fine. It was just a matter of getting around the course."

Jolly took the lead at the first windward mark when Heidi Ziegler carried Susan Taylor wide. "We dived down low, then it was just a matter of holding 'em off," Jolly said. "Susan had better boat speed." Jolly won by four boat lengths.

The Flying Dutchman series is turning into a three-boat race, but nobody can stop Paul Foerster. Steve Rosenberg said after Saturday's second-place finish, "Unless somebody gets going faster than Paul and (crew) Andrew (Goldman), nobody's gonna be able to help us." J.B. Braun was third Saturday, second in the series.

In the two-boat Tornado duel, Pete Melvin wrested the lead from Gary Knapp on the third beat, then stretched his lead when Knapp failed to realize the mark had been moved. "We wondered why they didn't tack," Melvin said, "but we'll take it." Knapp: "We made some tactical errors."

At Marblehead, Mass., the Finns had the day off and will resume today.

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