By Chris Stone and Ken Stone
A seasoned sailor, Briana Provancha was not having a good day on Guanabara Bay. Instead of savoring their Rio Olympics, she and teammate Annie Haeger had to work desperately to stay afloat.
Still, with rescuers at the ready, the 27-year-old said she was more nervous about her 470 dinghy’s equipment — and the setting sun — “because we had two more days of sailing left.” The sail had a little rip. The jib was torn and they were two miles out from shore. Other teams suffered broken masts.
Fellow Point Loma High School graduate Caleb Paine had a better outcome.
Piloting a dinghy by himself, he was the only American to medal in sailing in the Games of the 31st Olympiad.
At the club, he passed around his heavy bronze medal from the Finn class competition, conceding it was already dinged and scratched because it went everywhere with him. “The only thing I ask is please don’t drop it,” he told the gathering.
Standing on the medal stand was “surreal,” Paine, 25, told groups of children and adults at the club. He said he’d like to grab gold next time — at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
But nature’s forces on the boat make sailing challenging, he said. So was the time involved at Rio — eight days for him.
Provancha added: “Some people’s events are done in 35 seconds. Ours was nine days straight, no breaks” with days (including delays) lasting from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. — and a 70-minute trip to and from Marina da Glória.
“There’s a lot of things in sailing that aren’t under your control,” she told the Times of San Diego. “You race against a lot of people. You do the best that you can at a given moment, but the wind can change directions. The current can change. Something can happen with your boat. Another competitor can have a really good day. We love the challenge of it. That’s why we spend all of our time learning to perfect it.”
Having won a “test event” at the same venue in 2015, Provancha was hopeful of medaling at Rio. It was not to be. She and fellow Boston College alumna Haeger took seventh out of 20 in the medal round — after leading early.
Nearly two months later, Provancha was philosophical.
“The thing that I learned was accepting — not failure but being OK with things not going your way,” she said. “Learning to love what you do because you don’t always know how things are going to end up. The whole outcome of our Olympics was heartbreaking.”
Going through all of that and not having a medal to show for all her work was difficult at first, she said, “but you gain perspective as you look back on the experience. Did that really happen? Why me?”
She said she couldn’t be more proud of what she and Haeger did over the past four years — “and medal or not, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Provancha likely won’t try for another Olympics. Instead, she hopes to find a full-time job in the sailing field and “get to continue sailing for the rest of my life.”
It’s taking him a while to digest the whole experience, which Paine called “magical and amazing.” “Reflecting on the journey to get there really makes you appreciate the final event.”
Listening to all this was Annabelle Huyard, 14, a junior sailor at the San Diego Yacht club with seven years’ experience.
“Holding the medal was overwhelming.” Annabelle said. “It (Olympians’ talk) is incredible and very inspiring to me.”
Would she like to be an Olympian?
“I’m definitely dedicated to the sport at this time in my life,” she said. “It takes a lot of dedication, and I’ve put a lot of thought into it and I’m not sure yet. But I’m very excited.”
Living in the Olympic Village with 10,000 other athletes was an “experience of a lifetime,” both San Diegans said. They ran into world famous athletes, including American decathlete Ashton Eaton.
They marveled at the size of the Rio athlete’s dining room and the array of clothing and freebies available. They were especially taken by their ability to observe people from around the world and learn their customs.
“At every turn you would see something totally unexpected, that you wouldn’t see anywhere but at the Olympics,” Paine said.
“You were all on the same team,” Provancha said of the U.S. squad. “So friendly. … I never felt so small yet so big at the same time,” citing the petite gymnasts and towering Dutch basketball players.
And they said they were in a unique situation, the only U.S. teammates were so close because they grew up together, sailed together and now relished the Olympics together.Donning the Nike and Ralph Lauren clothing was “really cool,” Paine said. “You don’t understand how awesome it is to be on Team USA. The coolest thing is when you see your name and they have your podium-wear there. First time you put it on and it comes in this really cool case. Putting that on gave me tingles and chills because I knew that the next time I would put it on would be on a podium. I can’t describe how fortunate I was to put it on in the end.”
Provancha was moved by another scene.
Olympians were invited to choose members of an athlete council. She saw a North Korean take part in balloting — “probably the first time he had ever voted for anything.”
And in late September came a moment that they’ll never forget either. At the White House.
“Meeting [President] Obama [was] big closure on the entire thing. It was the last time that the whole 2016 team would be together,” Paine said.
Said Provancha: “Michelle was very genuine. You can tell right away why America has fallen in love with her.”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: