Meet The Coaches: Zack Leonard, Yale University

On May 30th 2016, the Yale University sailing team celebrated their fourth year winning the LaserPerformance Team Racing Championship. Four years in a row seems like quite a winning streak, but Yale University head coach, Zack Leonard, has worked close to 16 years to get the team to this level. We recently met with Zack to learn more about his own past sailing career and hear how he developed the Ivy League sailing team to be the powerful competitor it is today.

When Zack was a college student at Yale University, he was heavily involved in team racing. Many who partake in team racing understand the value of a good coach, but at the time of Zack’s sailing career in college, there were little to no coaches. Zack explained, “sailors could keep making the same mistakes over and over again without someone to help. It was really hard to learn, you needed someone to guide you.” Despite the difficulty, The Yale team had some success at Nationals his senior year at Yale and he moved on to coach at Brown University after graduation.

As team racing began to pick up traction in the 90’s, more schools were bringing on full time coaches to teach sailing teams. When this transition happened, that was right about the time that team racing became a much bigger part of college sailing. With Zack as its coach, the Brown sailing team participated in the U.S. Team Racing Championships and even succeeded in bringing home the championship title a few times.

Zack said, “all I wanted to do when I was young was dinghy sailing. The tactical, the street-fighting aspect, that’s what led me to be passionate about team racing and match racing.” Zack certainly has the impressive track record to prove his dedication to team racing. He represented the United States at Team Worlds twice. He also won the US Team Racing Championship a number of times as well as the English Championships.

In 2000, after a seven year break from coaching sailing to work in advertising, Zack went back to Yale University to coach. There, he saw that there was work to do to get Yale sailing back to the success seen in the 70s and 80s.

“Yale was among the last of the original college sailing schools to hire a full time coach. There wasn’t much team racing going on; people weren’t that interested. Our first mission was to become as competitive as we could. We had to start off with fleet racing.”

Zack explained that he had to de-emphasize team racing until the sailors could get their feet under themselves, so they focused on fleet racing instead. The Yale team was immediately able to qualify for fleet racing at Nationals, which led to more sailors wanting to come to Yale and join the team. In 2004, Zack found he was now able to focus on team racing.

After four straight wins in a row, one has to ask the question: what makes the Yale University sailing team so powerful in team racing? Zack didn’t hesitate to respond, “our sailors are successful because we have a fair number of strong sailors, and there’s a core group of really fast sailors, sailors who really want to learn.  In team racing there are skills to keep learning, fears to overcome, and ideas to digest. It re-awakens the sense of inquiry the kids have.”

As someone who has been passionate about team racing for almost 20 years, Zack is a huge advocate. One of his own sailors, Chandler Gregoire, will be representing the Yale University sailing team at the LaserPerformance Collegiate Cup this summer at Lake Garda. An event built around the ideals of team racing, Zack has nothing but positive things to say about the event.

“Team racing trains your mind to calculate variables quicker and make more complex decisions quickly and accurately. When a sailor goes back to fleet racing they have a lot of time to observe more detail and it feels like you’re never rushing or surprised, because in team racing you think many moves ahead; it really helps tactfully.”

When asked how team racing can help in the future after college he said simply, “sailors have to work closely with their teammates. Teamwork, and learning how to communicate and work through trouble with your teammates, are both incredibly important in life.

The Collegiate Cup is an amazing opportunity for these young sailors to learn from each other and to learn about team racing. They get to push themselves to a higher level. Plus, I’ve coached at Garda before and it’s the most beautiful place in the world. These sailors are incredibly lucky, for sure.”

To learn more about the 2016 LaserPerformance Collegiate Cup (LPCC) and the participating sailors, visit our other site, www.laserperformancecollegiatecup.com.