The Road to Rio... An Interview with Paralympic Sailing Coach, Mike Ingham

By Liza Savage-Katz

I met Mike Ingham, a US Olympic Sailing Coach and world class sailor, on a yoga mat in one of my classes at the JCC. I have had the opportunity to get to know Mike as he showed up for classes after returning from exotic sailing adventures all over the world to places like Australia, Asia, and numerous trips to Europe.

As a coach myself, I was always curious to know what the key factors are in the making of a world class coach. And in Mike, I knew he was exactly that. In fact, his latest project is coaching the US Paralympic Sailing team. This May they won the World Championships- an enviable position as they head to the Paralympic Games in Rio this upcoming September.

Mike landed as a coach by accident as it was not his life ambition. As with most things, it began from his own remarkable racing career among them, competing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. His professional coaching career started when he was asked by North Sails to help and teach their customers and give clinics in return for a sponsorship.

Success with his own racing career continued and he was ultimately asked to be a contributor for Sailing World Magazine, a magazine with worldwide distribution. In 2011, Mike was asked to become a Racing Editor for that same magazine. By 2013, he was able to quit his day job and focus full time on writing for Sailing World Magazine, sailing for North Sails, and coaching.

One of the clinics he gave in 2014 was for the US Paralympic hopefuls. One thing led to another and before he knew it, Mike was working for the US Sailing Team.

So when I asked Mike what makes an world class Olympic coach, these are the 7 tips he gave me:

1) Have a skill set:

"I have to know how to win. In my case, I actively race, so much of what I coach is based on my own best practices. There are plenty of coaches that know how to win, but don't do it themselves. Either way, you have to know your sport inside out."

2) Be a good listener:

“I watch, listen, and figure out what is most important for my athletes' success."

3) Prioritize:

"I can't just dump information on the team because I have it. I start with the low hanging fruit first and teach the key skills that will make the most difference. We can't change everything so I pick the battles I can win."

4) Communicate clearly:

"Say little but make it thoughtful. I communicate only the most important points. Actually, writing for the magazine really helped me with communicating clearly."

5) Be forgiving:

"In the end athletes are just people; highly talented and motivated for sure, but still people. It is easy to get frustrated when you see errors, but mistakes are inevitable. Mastering patience and empathy are a difficult but necessary part of coaching. "

6) Get out of the way!:

"The athletes have to compete. I help guide them, but it is up to them. I will do whatever I have to do so that I am 100% ready for them when their day starts, attempting to be low maintenance so I take away from their stress, not add to it. My yoga practice helps as it is healthy for my body, especially with all the travels and being banged around on big waves in my coaching boat all day. It also grounds me mentally."

7) Collaborate:

"I find people that are like-minded and are willing. In this case, leading up to the Olympics in Rio, we are training with the Canadian Paralympic team."

All the above tips are valuable for any coach or trainer. Another curiosity of mine was to know how coaching the Paralympics was different from coaching the regular Olympics.

Mike's Paralympic sailing team includes 3 athletes:

Brad Kendall lost both of his legs in a plane crash at age 22.
Hugh Freund lost his leg to cancer during his freshman year at Roger's Williams University.
Rick Doerr is a T7 down paraplegic suffered a severe car crash while he was in med school.

Mike shared this wisdom with me:
My team has 3 people, so of the 6 possible legs, they only have 3 of which only one leg that actually functions. There is some adaptive equipment fitted in their Sonar racing boat but that is really not a big deal from a coaching perspective.”

What is a big deal is… "When you are coaching Olympians, you are coaching them through the hardest thing they have ever done. Not so with Paralympians, most have all gone through something much harder. They have a broader perspective, they are tougher mentally, and I can’t simply yell at them if they get off track.”

Mike recollected just how tough they are; “After the 2015 Sailing World Cup in Miami, I noted to myself; Never complain about anything ever again.” Ricky had just a few weeks prior to the World Cup had been released after a 75 day stay in the hospital where he was treated for a bad infection in his leg. “He had lost 35 pounds and was exhausted, clearly miserable, and had to sleep 16 hours a day only waking for our races. He never once complained about his hardship, but neither did Hugh or Brad at the extra workload.”

As we lead to Rio Olympics, I wanted to know Mike's thoughts about Rio and the obvious concerns the press has raised.

Mike shared, "It's a really cool city, beautiful scenery, and bustling place. There is uncertainty with the current President who is in the middle of an impeachment, stories of poverty and crime, the Zika virus, and the water quality issues are all real. We are taking steps to mitigate all these things. There is risk in everything we do. Not one athlete I have met on the Olympic or Paralympic side of the US Sailing team would think of missing the games. No freaking way!” He added: “The intense work that goes into preparing and qualifying is their dream and a once in a lifetime opportunity, not a chance they are giving that up!” At the heart of all true Olympiads is the core belief that one never gives up.

Mike also wanted me to share one additional thing with our Healthy Edge community. When Mike was on his own Olympic path, he was supported by GRAFF, the Greater Rochester Amateur Athletic Federation. GRAFF is an individual donation based organization that helps Olympic hopefuls. Mike is currently on the board and they typically support about a handful of local athletes who are trialing for the Olympics at any given time. This year they have supported:

1) Miranda Melville, Race Walk
2) Emily Wright, Kayak 2k & Single
3) AJ Gruttadauro, Race Walk
4) Ryan Chalmers, Paralympic wheelchair
5) Ryan Monaghan, Pairs rowing
6) Anja Pierce, Paralympic kayaking
7) Meghan Musnicki, 8s rowing

To learn more about GRAFF, please visit www.GRAFFUSA.org or on Facebook at "Greater Rochester Amateur Athletic Federation" It's all about paying it forward, with this quote coming to mind:

This quote came to me as I wrote this article:
“Everyone wants to stand out from the crowd. That's just human. But your motive is the key. If you are not willing to be last, then you are not worthy to be first. If you really want to stand out, serve others. And you can start by helping a friend."

Thank you Mike for helping our community and our Olympic hopefuls. The best advice Mike gave me is to focus on my health and relationships first. All the fame and fortune in the world cannot come close to the value of our health and the quality of how we care for those to whom we are closest.

Best of luck to you and your team in Rio! Rochester will definitely be cheering for you!! Go USA!

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