It is a tenet almost as old as sport itself: Always play to win; never play not to lose.
Unless, of course, you’re sailing.
Nick Adamson was a day away from making the U.S. Olympic team and he knew the task at hand. Only one other sailor, his close friend, Andy Lovell, had a chance to wrest the lone spot on the U.S. team in the Laser class from him during the final two races.
“My whole game plan was to make him sail [poorly],” Adamson said. “I didn’t care how I finished.”
The format of the U.S. Olympic yachting trials in Savannah, Ga., was a 15-race, “three-drop” series, meaning each of the 48 competitors’ scores were computed after dropping the three-worst finishes. Adamson’s three worst after 13 races were a disqualification for being across the starting line when a race began, an eighth-place finish and a sixth-place finish.
Even if Adamson dropped both of his scores on the final Sunday, Lovell still had to have a total of four or fewer points to win the lone Laser spot on the Olympic team. So before the first race Sunday, Adamson was chasing Lovell around and through race management boats and other competitors in a series of frenetic pre-race maneuvers.
“I was concentrating on keeping him from getting off the line, you know, just like they do in America’s Cup,” Adamson said. “We had three recall starts on the first race and two of those times I really had him pinned. He would’ve been last off the line.
“But when we got a good start, he got off great and I got a horrible start.”
Lovell finished third--which meant a victory in the final race would earn him the Olympic spot--and Adamson did not even finish as light winds nearly died altogether.
Adamson recently visited the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., seeking a cure for a nervous stomach, so you can bet the lines on his boat weren’t the only things in knots when that final race began.
“Luckily, we were at the unfavored end of the [starting] line when the race began and I was able to let the rest of the fleet do my work for me,” he said.
Both sailors finished in the middle of the pack, which was exactly the way Adamson planned it.
Sitting in a deck chair at the Balboa Yacht Club overlooking a sparkling bay on a cloudless June evening, Adamson smiled while recalling the mixture of emotions.
“I had been in such a good position all the way through the regatta that I went into the last day feeling like if I didn’t win, well, one, he would have to be really lucky, and two, I would have to really screw up.
“So I guess the finish was sort of anticlimactic. I was a little awe-struck that I had become an Olympian, but I didn’t jump for joy or anything.”
Whatever waves of euphoria washed over him, they were as fleeting as the wind that day. Sixteen of the 17 members of the last U.S. Olympic sailing team won medals, but Adamson has been racing Lasers since he was 13 and knows how a fickle breeze can change fortunes in a hurry.
“I spent three years of my life trying to do this and only one guy made it, 47 others went home unhappy,” he said. “That was a big relief, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I hadn’t really accomplished anything yet. You don’t get too many chances to win an Olympic medal.
“I’ve beaten most of the people I’ll be sailing against in Olympics in regattas around the world in the last couple of years, but you’re not guaranteed anything in this sport, especially in the Laser class.”
Maybe, but Adamson, a graduate of UC Irvine who lives in Newport Beach when he’s not in some exotic locale racing--he just got back from the Spa Regatta in Medembrik, Holland--wouldn’t even be thinking about the Olympics if the Laser class had not been added this year.
“They made the announcement the Laser class would be included two years ago when I graduated from Irvine,” he said. “Up until then, I wasn’t seriously considering an Olympic campaign because I probably would have had to crew in a 470 [a two-man, 16-foot sailboat] and I think I’m better steering than crewing.
“I mean the Olympics is the pinnacle of amateur sports, so I figured why not give it a whirl. I’m young and don’t have any commitments yet, and I’ve always been pretty good in a Laser. I’ve had one since I was 13 and raced them as a kid all the time.”
His relationship with the small one-man sailboat didn’t begin in the shadow of a posh Newport Bay yacht club.
“I grew up in this little podunk town on Lake Ray Hubbard not too far from Dallas,” Adamson said. “I think they named it after the engineer who built the dam.”
After a year at the Naval Academy--"I thought maybe I wanted to fly, but it was a way too regimented and regulated way of life for me"--he enrolled at Irvine and stuck to piloting sailboats.
Life in Irvine’s navy was less regimented. There was no one telling you what to do . . . or even offering help. If you wanted to race at Irvine, all you had to do was carry the boat up to the trailer--the one connected to your car--and drive to the site.
Irvine lacked resources, but the Anteaters had talent. And, with Adamson’s help as a skipper, they were the No. 2-ranked sailing team in the country in 1992.
Adamson has been battling the stomach problems since college, but he had become concerned that they could be more than just a nuisance. After the tests in Colorado Springs showed no signs of serious problems, he went to a training-center staff nutritionist for suggestions on how to put on some weight and keep it on.
Adamson weighs 165 pounds, 10 less than the optimum for the Laser class. In heavy wind conditions, the extra weight helps a sailor keep his boat upright and sailing at maximum speed.
Fortunately for Adamson, the course in Savannah, which will be the site of the Olympic competition, is well suited to his weight and style of racing.
“It’s a trapezoid-shaped course with two upwind legs and four downwind legs and a downwind finish,” he said. “It’s ocean sailing with medium conditions, usually 10 to 15 knots. It’s a good course for me.”
Adamson proved that during the trials with finishes of 2-3-1-4-4-6-8-1-2-1-4-4, using his “surfing” skills to sweep past competitors.
“It’s a course with lots of waves and I’m really good at surfing waves,” he said. “You’re always trying to surf and the guy who doesn’t come off a wave can pick up a lot of ground.
“In the trials, I guess I was the best at doing that. I had a pretty average pace upwind, but downwind with the waves, well, in one race I passed 15 boats on one downwind leg and that’s a lot of boats to take off in one chunk.”
Adamson will be back on the Savannah course next week during a training session with the U.S. team and will continue to practice there until the Games, when he hopes his stomach will calm down and the surf will be up.