ODU’s sailing team is a scrappy champ amid the Ivies

by Mike Hixenbaugh
Distinction Magazine

Heavy metal blares from the far end of the weight room. The physical effort of the 25 sweat-drenched college students working out this morning almost matches the song’s intensity. Iron dumbbells slam down against a rubber floor; steel weight bars clang into racks; heavy breathing and exhausted grunts complement the distorted guitar riffs, blast beat drumming and growling vocals pulsing from the speakers.

This is the Old Dominion University sailing team.

Perhaps you would have pictured pampered prep schoolers in white slacks and navy blue blazers. A gentle breeze ruffling a James Dean hairdo. Floating over gentle waves, coasting toward a dazzling sunset along a rocky cove – sailing line in one hand, martini in the other.

Picture instead a group of average-looking college students. They’ve got backpacks stuffed with running shorts, protein bars and overpriced textbooks. Cue a Rocky Balboa-style montage. These kids are up before sunrise and pumping iron. Cut.Now they’re running for miles along gritty inner-city streets, past rundown college apartments and boarded-up houses. Cut. Now they’re sailing through light rain, unpredictable wind gusts and choppy waters. Cut. Now they’re downing energy drinks and writing research papers at 3 in the morning.

This is collegiate sailing.

The gentleman’s sport born some 150 years ago in the halls of privileged British yacht clubs  is no longer reserved strictly for the well-to-do. And nowhere is this more apparent than at ODU.

This public university fields a perennial powerhouse in a sport founded and dominated by the Ivy Leagues. Like other collegiate sports, a handful of programs are mainstays at the top of the national sailing rankings. Among them are Yale, Stanford, Boston College, Dartmouth, Georgetown – and Old Dominion University.

The program has won 15 national championships since 1982 and has sent numerous athletes to the Olympics. It’s one of only two schools to have won a national championship in all six of the Intercollegiate Sailing Association’s single-handed and team disciplines. Harvard is the other.

After nearly three decades of success, ODU has quietly solidified its place among the elite of college sailing. But the Monarchs aren’t exactly blending in with the competition. Consider where they compete. When Stanford sailors host a meet, they often race with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. Yale races are held in a rocky cove in Branford, Connecticut. Imagine the view from the water during competitions overlooking historic Cambridge, Massachusetts. At ODU, sailors practice and compete in the shadow of towering port cranes, in view of massive cargo ships and alongside the Lamberts Point Coal Terminal.

This is sailing for the working class. This is an underdog sports team that has found surprising success against the odds. This is a team that defies convention, routinely shocks the experts and just wins, baby, wins. The program is perhaps the perfect symbol for a blue-collar port town that’s constantly fighting for respect among more elite coastal communities.

There’s just one problem.

Most locals don’t know it exists.

The ODU Sailing Center  is tucked away on the outskirts of campus along the banks of the Elizabeth River. Nothing about the humble brick building distinguishes it from others on campus. A stroll through its halls, however, reveals some of competitive sailing’s biggest names. They’re spelled out on dozens of framed awards hanging from the walls. Names like Debbie Capozzi and Sally Barkow and Charlie Ogletree and Anna Tunnicliffe – all former ODU sailors, all Olympians.

Tunnicliffe won a gold medal in Beijing four years ago and was favored to duplicate that feat in London this summer. She showed up at ODU a decade ago with a passion for sailing but little to indicate she would someday become the sport’s top-ranked female athlete. Better known for success on the track, she wasn’t a star recruit out of high school. She left Norfolk four years later – muscles toned and ripped after countless hours in the gym – and on course to dominate the sport at its highest level.

Give some of the credit for that transformation – and the program’s success overall – to head coach Mitch Brindley. He has guided the school to seven national championships since taking the helm of the program 17 years ago. He had a hand in two other championships as a sailor at ODU in the late 1980s and another as an assistant coach here. Brindley is highly regarded nationally for his ability to turn average recruits into world-class sailors.

Just ask Gary Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing and the lead commentator for most televised sailing competitions. “I’ve been around the college scene a long time, and I can tell you, ODU is an elite sailing program,” Jobson says from his home in Annapolis. “A big factor is ODU has one of the best coaches in America. This guy Mitch Brindley is excellent. I’ve spent some time down there, and he helps the kids beyond the technical aspects of sailing. He helps them with life. He’s really like an older brother figure, and he’s a big part of the reason they’re at the top of the rankings year after year.”

Like the program he guides, Brindley is an unassuming leader.  He says there’s a more important factor than his leadership for the team’s surprising success. The best coach in the world, he says, wouldn’t be effective without the full backing of the university. In a sport that doesn’t allow athletic scholarships, quality facilities and equipment are a major driving force in drawing recruits. The sailing team received $320,000  from the university and outside donors in 2010, according to an independent website that tracks college sports budgets. Brindley confirmed that figure. Only three other programs – Yale, Stanford and the College of Charleston – reported receiving more funding that year. “We’ve had incredible support,” he says. “The university recognizes that we’re a waterfront campus, and we should have a commitment to sailing. It’s something that really distinguishes the school from other universities.”

In the 1970s, around the same time Norfolk leaders began investing in downtown projects to enliven the city’s once-industrial waterfront, ODU began searching for ways to embrace its own location along the Elizabeth. Sailing had been a popular club sport here since 1964 , but the team wasn’t taken seriously by the varsity programs it competed with. The university appointed a sailing committee in 1977. Later that year, sailing legend Gary Bodie was named the waterfront coordinator and sailing coach, and within four years the school had allocated money to build a sailing center and elevate sailing to a varsity sport. Bodie went on to coach the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, but not before guiding the young program to its first national championship in 1982. The team was an established force in national competition within a few years.

You’d think the world of collegiate sailing would have taken notice by now. Yet ODU continues to surprise the experts. The team frequently performs better than expected at national competitions, often beating teams ranked higher in the official coaches’ poll. Maybe it’s because the program is based at a
run-of-the-mill state university competing among academic elites. Or maybe it’s because the program doesn’t usually land the top recruits. Whatever the reason, ODU is a perpetual underdog. Brindley doesn’t mind, he says. “I like flying under the radar.”

That’s something the team does well, even here
in Norfolk.

Being underestimated on the national stage is one thing. Being overlooked by locals is another. It seems most Norfolk residents don’t even realize ODU has a sailing team, let alone one of the best programs in the country. Brindley says he has bumped into tenured faculty who were surprised to learn the team existed. Others, he says, often confuse it with the school’s rowing team.

Perhaps that’s because sailing doesn’t rank in our culture’s sports hierarchy. There are no dramatic game-winning homeruns, no bone-crushing head-to-head collisions, no brain-rattling knockout punches. As far as spectator sports go, sailing appears pretty dull from shore. Even with Jobson calling the action during televised competitions with multiple camera angles on ESPN-U, it can be tough for the layman to follow the jargon. Is he tacking or jibbing? Is “jibbing” even a word? Now who’s that trimming the sails – the helmsman or the crew? What  IS trimming the sails?

Factor in the general public’s idea of sailing as a leisurely sport for the rich. Like most stereotypes, there’s a bit of truth in this one. For decades the sport was known primarily as “yachting” and was accessible only to those with the resources to own their own boat and the time to spend hours out on the water. The growth of community yachting clubs and an increasing number of sailing teams at public high schools has opened the sport to many more children. (Though you still won’t see many minorities or inner-city youths out on the water. “We’re working on that,” Brindley says.)

“We’ve worked hard to get away from that image as a rich man’s sport because it’s too much work and too physically demanding,” he says. “These kids work hard and don’t get a ton in return.”

Unlike the NCAA, the ICSA – collegiate sailing’s governing authority – doesn’t allow athletic scholarships. At ODU, that means most of the sailors carry student loan debt and work part-time jobs to help cover rent. “We’re typical college students,” says team skipper Dillon Paiva, a rising senior. “We nickel-and-dime everything. My freshman year, I sold my textbooks so I could pay for a parking ticket.”

This kid doesn’t eat his ramen noodles with a silver spoon. Neither, he says, do most of his teammates.

And if you think for a moment there’s anything relaxing about competitive sailing, consider the mental and physical endurance required to lean back over the edge of a boat for several seconds – feet locked under hiking straps, legs trembling – while adjusting sails, keeping tabs on competitors and studying ripples on the water and cloud movements and other environmental cues that indicate how the wind or current might shift in the final stretch of a race. Known commonly as a physical chess match on water, the sport requires awareness, agility and endurance.

A big reason ODU often outperforms private schools with deeper roots in the sport: It was among the first programs in the nation a decade ago to acknowledge the sport’s physical demands by requiring sailors to spend time in the gym. The team hits the weight room twice a week and works with the same strength coach as the football team.

It’s that focus on the physical side of sailing that has transformed Paiva from a scrawny, unrecruited high school senior into the team’s top performer. After graduating next spring, the Raleigh native  plans to launch an Olympic campaign with an eye on Rio in 2016. “I don’t just want to go,” he says. “I want to win a medal. I’ll bust my tail to do it.”

Today that means pushing himself to the limit in the gym. He’s moving in rhythm with the pounding heavy metal beat while doing crunches. He tosses a 25-pound medicine ball into the air with each sit-up. A teammate throws it back and counts the reps out loud. Having already finished a complete circuit of upper-body exercises, Paiva’s arms are rubber. His face strains and he shouts in agony each time he sits up and releases the ball.

Catch. Crunch. Toss. Catch. Crunch. Toss.

He continues on like this for a few more repetitions. After the final toss, he collapses onto his back in a puddle of his own sweat, red-faced, hands on his head, chest heaving. A minute later he’s sitting up again and ready to start another set. If not for his undersized 5-foot-8-inch frame, you might guess that Dillon Paiva is a member of the football team. Maybe you’d guess scrappy wrestler.

You’d be wrong.

At ODU, this is what a sailor looks like.

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