Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2012

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Skipper Amanda Clark '05, left, and her crew, Sarah Lihan, will sail for the U.S. in the 2012 London Olympics. Photo by Mick Anderson/US Sailing.

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In Pursuit of Excellence

In Pursuit of Excellence
Skipper Ben Bainbridge '12, left, and crew Harry Yates '14 sail for the College's coed team. Photo by Rob Migliaccio

How Jeff Bresnahan builds a winning team

by Franz Ritt


Going into the first regatta of the fall season, sailing coach Jeff Bresnahan didn't know what to expect. The prior spring, starting skipper Maggie Shea '11, a government major from Wilmette, Ill., led the women's team to a second-place finish in the national championship — and then she graduated. “I didn't know how we were going to replace her, and a lot of the other roles were going to have to be filled with freshmen,” Bresnahan says.

The regatta was the Mrs. Hurst Bowl at Dartmouth, an event the Camels had won the previous fall with Shea and Atlantic Brugman '13. Both of the team's two-person boats were racing with a new line-up — a challenge for the sailors and the coach. “It was our first chance to see the 'new-look' Camels, and we won the event,” Bresnahan says.

Keeping a college team competitive is never easy. Seniors graduate, new students are recruited, and everyone needs time and opportunity to develop. But Bresnahan, who is in his 20th year of coaching at the College, seems to have figured out the formula. Under his direction the women's team regularly ranks among the top 20 in the nation. Last year was his program's best-ever finish in a team championship — both the women's and coed teams qualified for the nationals — and the New England Intercollegiate Sailing Association named him coach of the year. Of the 16 U.S. sailors competing in the London Olympics this year, two are former Camels who sailed for him.

Bresnahan comes from a competitive background, having campaigned for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the Star class. As a coach, he works hard to help sailors find the right balance between sailing, academics and being an active part of the campus community. “We have a lot of kids who want to do well in school, sail well and do other things, but you can only do so many things at once,” he says. “We've had a lot of Olympians and a lot of kids who go off to do the Olympics. I tell the team, 'Don't spread yourself out too far. Get the experience of being at Conn. It's something that you'll think about the rest of your life.'”

The College's waterfront location helps. Because they practice on the Thames River, the sailors can walk to the boats in minutes. By contrast, one of the team's closest competitors, the University of Rhode Island, has a 15-minute drive to their sailing site. “We're able to get a lot of things done in a day,” Bresnahan says. “If you're at a bigger school and going from one thing to another, you get to practice and it's the end of your day. Here it's just part of it.”

Another advantage is the College's two-week spring break. This year, both teams will train in Maryland and Boston during break to position themselves for the national championship in May, hosted by the University of Texas. “We're one of the few colleges left that still has two weeks of break,” Bresnahan says. “We really see the benefit of going on the road together for the extra week to just train.”

Throughout the fall and spring, the teams practice four days a week and compete most weekends. Spending so much time together creates a tight bond on and off the water. “There is a social aspect, which is wonderful,” says Elizabeth “Bitsy” Whipple '12, an architectural studies major and art minor from Plandome, N.Y. “When I think about my team I consider us practically family.”

Both teams train together, and even if they qualify for just one of the three spring national championships, they all still practice together to prepare. “It adds support to our starters,” Whipple says, “but it also adds great competition to our practices and helps the team as a whole improve.”

Brugman is one of the most experienced sailors on the team. The Barcelona native came to the College with significant international sailing experience and was named an All-American last year. She's also typical of the well-rounded student profile that Bresnahan seeks; in addition to sailing and schoolwork, the international relations major volunteers at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London and works at the student-run Coffee Grounds.

At the Mrs. Hurst Bowl this fall, Brugman competed along with Whipple, Grace Medley '15 of Portsmouth, R.I., and Kim Bolick '15 of Hopkinton, Mass. “Winning made us confident in the skills of the team and our possibilities at other regattas,” Brugman says.

After the win at Dartmouth, the Camels began melding even more as a unit. By the end of October, the women picked up a third-place finish at the Victorian Urn Regatta at Harvard and were ranked second in the nation behind Yale. But they couldn't keep that run going, especially after several mid-season events were canceled. At the Women's Atlantic Coast Championship in mid-November, they finished sixth of 18. “We just didn't have enough time to get everyone enough experience,” Bresnahan says.

Now he's focused on the spring — and his sailors are getting stronger every day. Medley and Bolick have a semester behind them now; Brugman and Whipple are working well together. “We know we can win on a weekend basis,” Bresnahan says. “It's a matter of a lot of things coming together to win a national championship. ... We were second in the women's national rankings for most of the first semester. I think with a little more time we can be there.”


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