Greatest Athlete #6: Sailing life a good one for Shelter Island’s Clark

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her crew, Sarah Lihan, at the European Championships in Helsinki last month.

Amanda Clark was still only a toddler when she received her first sailing lesson while on a boat with her parents, Dennis and Ellen. She stuck her hand in the water and let it drag along before her father told her to stop. She was slowing the boat down.

Since then, Amanda Clark has spent the better part of her life as a sailor, navigating waves and wind, and finding ways to propel her boat through the water as swiftly as possible.

As Ellen Clark recalled, her precocious daughter always seemed to be a quick study. “I remember saying, ‘This kid at the age of 5 could go off and live on her own right now,’ ” she said.

Amanda Clark, a lifelong Shelter Island resident, was a sailing prodigy. At the age of 6, she started sailing in the Shelter Island Yacht Club’s junior program. At the age of 7 she was fearlessly working her way through the waters of Dering Harbor. She was 9 when she sailed in her first national event, 13 when she appeared in her first international regatta. By the time she had reached the tender age of 15, she had become the youngest female to make the United States sailing team in the Europe Dinghy class. Before she graduated from high school, Clark made an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in the Europe Dinghy, taking a respectable third in the trials.

That was the first of her four campaigns to qualify for the Olympics. She reached the 2008 Beijing Games in the 470 class, skippering a boat that was crewed by Sarah Chin, who went by the last name Mergenthaler at the time. They finished 12th among the 19-boat women’s fleet at the Qingdao Olympic Sailing Center.

Clark figures she has visited about 46 countries through sailing. She has stood on every continent except Antarctica.

After a one day hiatus, the 5 Greatest Athletes in area history will be unveiled beginning Sunday.

She has trained, coached or competed with the world’s top sailors and represented the United States in 16 world championship events.

And Clark’s sailing life continues. The 29-year-old Clark and her new crew, Sarah Lihan, are bidding to win a place in the 2012 Olympics in London.

Sailing was a good fit for Clark from the start. Perhaps her future was laid out a few years before she was born when her parents joined the Shelter Island Yacht Club and got a sailboat. The Clarks’ two oldest children, Greg and Becky, also went though the yacht club’s junior program and were good sailors in their own right. “Amanda, though, was a little different,” said Ellen Clark. “She took the tiller of one of our boats when she was 4, and she could sail it perfectly.”

As a youngster, with her love of the water and her talent, Amanda Clark showed that she had a bright future in sailing. She said she started training harder when she was 13, after noticing that less talented sailors in the single-handed Optimist class were beating her because they were training harder. She raised the bar, and her parents helped.

“We did everything in our power to get her around the world and the best coaches that we could afford,” said Ellen Clark.

Amanda Clark was 14 when she earned a silver medal in the Optimist European Championships. She made a breakthrough at the age of 16 when she made it to the ISAF Youth World Championship. “It helped me realize that I was one of the best female sailors in the country,” she said. She was also the top female finisher in both the North and South American Championships that year.

Clark won the junior national championship in the Laser Radial class in 1998 and 2000. She became a two-time Intercollegiate Sailing Association all-American at Connecticut College. In 2001 she won the ICSA single-handed North American championship while at Connecticut College.

Her college coach, Jeff Bresnahan, was quoted on a college website as saying: “Amanda is the hardest working person I know. She is dedicated in every part of her life.”

During her Optimist days, Clark found herself sailing against another boat that, like her own, had a blue hull. The two blue hulls stood out among the fleets of mostly white boats. The other blue boat belonged to Chin. “We kind of had a competitive, healthy rivalry,” said Chin.

In 2002, the two rivals became teammates on the same 470 boat, with Clark skippering and Chin the crew. The chemistry was just right. Chin recalls times in a race when she knew Clark would tack before Clark did just that. It was the start of a long and successful partnership that brought them to the Olympics. They were ranked No. 1 on the United States sailing team from 2005 to 2008.

Like Clark, Chin has a long history in sailing. Chin, who made an unsuccessful Olympic bid in the Europe Dinghy in 2000, once asked when was the first time she was on a boat. Her mother told her, “You wouldn’t know because you were in a bassinet at four months [of age] on a boat” with her grandfather.

Clark and Chin made a good team. They brought their world ranking from 47th in 2005 to fifth in 2007.

Perhaps one reason they did so well is because they share similar personalities. Neither of them like to lose.

“Amanda is the only person I have ever met who has matched my competitiveness,” said Chin, who lives in Long Beach Island, N.J. “She’s really focused. She’s really driven.”

Together, they accomplished a lot. In the trials for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, they finished an agonizing second.

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her current crew, Sarah Lihan, at the European Championships in Helsinki last month.

Only the winning boat qualifies for the Olympics, so the two had to settle for being the first alternates after finishing only three seconds behind Katie McDowell and Isabelle Kinsolving, who went on to take fifth place in Athens.

It was an emotional blow for Clark and Chin.

“Even though you’re second best in the country, you’re like, ‘That was great, but it wasn’t good enough,’ ” Chin said. “We gave it all we had. We put our lives in it for four years and we’re second.”

That disappointment was turned into a positive, though, fueling their run for the 2008 Olympics in China.

“It made us hungrier,” Chin said. “We never really stopped training after the Athens trials. By the time the 2008 trials came around for Beijing, we were the most experienced, the most prepared.”

And, as it turned out, the most qualified.

On one of the most memorable days either of them have experienced, they took first place in the trials in 2007, which for the first time included a mixed fleet of men and women.

Chin recalled the image of a triumphant fist pump at the end. “It gives me goose bumps thinking about it,” she said. “It was the most amazing feeling, just to know that you did it.”

An even more amazing sensation awaited them in Beijing.

Some athletes choose to skip the Olympics opening ceremony, opting to get a good night of rest instead, but Clark and Chin wanted to take it all in.

“We chose to do it because we thought that’s an experience not to be missed,” Chin said. “Walking into an opening ceremony for the Olympics is something special.”

Clark’s parents nearly missed making it to the opening ceremony. The tickets they had purchased turned out to be the product of a ticket scam. Nevertheless, they managed to obtain opening ceremony passes and were in the crowd that hot, humid night at the Beijing National Stadium, which is also known as the Bird’s Nest. They got to see their daughter among the other Olympians, waving to the crowd.

Even three years later, the memory of that wonderful night almost brings Ellen Clark to tears. “It was as special as when my firstborn was born,” she said. “It was just unbelievable, unbelievable.”

It was a remarkable night for Amanda Clark. She got to shake President Bush’s hand. She got to have her picture taken with NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Amanda Clark remembers athletes jockeying for position to get in front of television cameras as they marched around the stadium. She figures she got about two and a half seconds of air time.

“That was a huge milestone in my career, for sure,” she said. “It was everything I ever wanted from my first Olympic experience.”

In a U.S. Sailing website posting, Clark wrote: “The most rewarding part so far has been qualifying for the Olympic Team, and more importantly, inspiring others to believe in something. The word ‘Olympics’ puts a smile on almost every face I see; it is nice to be part of that.”

Of course, the one missing item is an Olympics medal. That is something Clark hopes to rectify next year when the Olympics go to England. If she does win a medal, it will be with a new teammate, though.

The Clark/Chin team dissolved in February when Chin made the difficult decision to retire, ending a nine-year run together. “That is a pretty remarkable time for a team to stay together,” said Chin.

The two had grown so close that Chin said she regards Clark as a sister. To this day, Chin said her retirement from competitive sailing is a subject she can barely talk about. “It was absolutely probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, to walk away from something you love, but as an athlete, you have to realize you’re not 100-percent there any more,” she said.

Clark, who had only one crew member before Chin, Duffy Markham, reportedly took the news well. She went about finding a new crew.

As the skipper, it is Clark’s duty to steer the boat. She is responsible for the speed and how the boat moves through the water. She makes most of the tactical calls.

“The crew is the powerhouse,” Clark said. “Without the crew, I would be completely useless. The crew is the one that balances the boat.”

The 470 boat is about 15-feet long, with a main mast, a jib and a spinnaker. On a breezy day, it can sail as fast as 17 knots, about 20 miles per hour.

Clark held a week of tryouts in search of a new crew, and found one: Sarah Lihan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The announcement was made on Feb. 21.

THOM TOUW PHOTO | Amanda Clark (right) and her new crew, Sarah Lihan, have already experienced a great deal of success together on the water. The duo is aiming for the 2012 Olympic games in London.

The “new Sarah” had credentials of her own. Lihan was a serious sailor in the Laser Radial class, with a No. 2 national ranking. She has two Olympic trials under her belt. In college, she was an all-American her senior year as a skipper for Yale in 2009-10, and a national champion in 2009.

This was a major change for Lihan, one that she may very well not have made if it wasn’t an opportunity for her to sail with Clark.

“It was all about Amanda,” Lihan said. “I don’t think I would have switched if it had been anyone else.”

Still, it was a big adjustment for the 6-foot-1 Lihan to move to a 470 boat. “I had never crewed a boat before so it was big for me not to be holding the tiller,” she said. “It was almost like switching sports entirely.”

So far, so good. Both sailors say things are coming together well for Team Go Sail. They have competed in four regattas so far.

The first half of the Olympic team trials for next year’s Olympics was the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta that was held in Dorset, England, in early June. Clark and Lihan finished 11th overall. More importantly, they stayed close to the only American team in front of them, Erin Maxwell and Isabelle K. Farrar, who were eighth. Only the top American team will get to sail for the United States in the Olympics next summer.

The second half of qualifying will be held in Perth, Australia, in December, and the Team Go Sail twosome sounds confident about their chances of making it to London next year.

“It’s actually exactly where we want to be,” Clark said. “As a team, we’re just moving forward at an incredible pace, becoming stronger and stronger.”

An Olympic qualifying campaign is a major undertaking. For the sailors themselves, it amounts to a full-time job.

Aside from the training (Clark said that on a breezy day on the water, she can burn off between 3,000 and 4,000 calories), there is also tiring work to be done on the boat itself. And then there is the staggering cost of the endeavor.

An Olympic bid can cost a sailing team around $500,000. “There are definitely teams spending over that,” said Clark.

Clark said 60 percent of Team Go Sail’s budget is provided by U.S. Sailing Team alphagraphics, a title sponsor.

It’s a big commitment and a lot of work, but for someone like Clark with sailing in her blood, it’s a good life.

So, what is it about Amanda Clark that makes her stand apart from many other sailors?

“I think it’s her determination,” Chin said. “It’s something you can’t teach. You can’t make somebody want it more. With Amanda, you never had to.”

Ellen Clark knows all about her daughter’s focus. “Driven would probably be the first word to come to mind,” she said.

Whether it be a world championship regatta or a Wednesday night sailing race from Greenport to New Suffolk, Amanda Clark is all business when she is on the water.

“Amanda is a perfectionist, but she doesn’t go off the deep end about it,” Ellen Clark said. “She’s very practical. There’s no doubt about it, she has to do it right.”

Amanda Clark has worked for her mother’s business, Clark Executive Search, Inc., as an executive recruiter, finding scientists and doctors for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

“She’s the best darn employee I ever had,” Ellen Clark said. “She dedicates and throws herself into whatever work she does.”

Amanda Clark, who also does some coaching in addition to her full-time sailing, is married to a fellow sailor, Greg Rissen, who heads the sailing program as part of his job as the director of a local camp on Shelter Island.

Clark still loves the competitive sailing life.

“I love to travel,” she said. “I love to compete, and no two races are ever the same. Sometimes it goes your way, and that’s great, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”

Clark still has enthusiasm for her sport. Lihan sees it in the wide-eyed look that Clark has when she is on the water.

“She still has that sparkle, and I think that’s what’s really going to pull through for us,” Lihan said. “There is nowhere else in the world she would rather be.”

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