Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Going Varsity

An interview with former George Washington University sailor Will Ricketson
by Jake Fish

It is important to take a look back at how far the sport of college sailing has come for so many programs around the county. One program in particular welcomed in the new year with outstanding news. After years of self evaluation, perseverance and dedication, on and off the water, the George Washington University sailing team has achieved varsity status.

Will Ricketson, a 2011 George Washington graduate and four-year member of the sailing team, led the charge throughout this extensive process of transitioning this program from club to varsity. The move is part of a strategic plan by the university to bolster its athletic programs.

Ricketson served as a coordinator for the first-ever US Sailing Road Show last summer and is now Olympic Coordinator for the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics. US Sailing caught up with Ricketson to discuss the development of George Washington sailing as a varsity program and what it took to make this a reality.

US Sailing: Where did the idea to go from club to varsity come from? Why was it important to go varsity?

Ricketson: By the time I was a senior at GW in 2011, we had already made great strides as a club team. In 2007, we had about a dozen sailors, no equipment, and were ranked near the bottom of the 45-team MAISA conference. By 2011, we had over 30 dedicated athletes, a new fleet, a coach boat, team van, and had made it to two consecutive co-ed conference championships and the Women's ACC's. However, we seemed to have reached a performance ceiling. We were faster than most of our fellow club teams, but struggled against the majority of our varsity competitors. We decided that the logical next step was to see if we could take our team to the next level. For us, that meant varsity status.

US Sailing: What are the main differences between club and varsity programs?

Ricketson: The differences are almost too many to count, on both physical and psychological levels. As a club team, our primary goal as an organization often seemed like survival, rather than winning. Money was tight, especially after we acquired a brand new fleet in 2009. We were 100% student run. It's hard to focus on how to beat tremendous varsity programs when you're worried that your fleet might vanish if you don't scrape together enough money for marina fees each semester. Having a full-time varsity coach to instill discipline, improve performance, oversee financial issues and recruit new talent is by far the most important difference.

US Sailing: Was there a demand for varsity sailing at GW?

Ricketson: Yes. Before I submitted our plan to GW, I talked with the team to make sure everyone was one board. We knew that much more would be expected of our athletes should our varsity proposal be approved. It immediately became clear that we already considered ourselves a varsity team in all but name, based on the level of effort and time we put into sailing. We strived to match Georgetown's venerable program hour-for-hour in terms of practice. So in that sense, there was a great demand.

US Sailing: Where did you start the process of leading the charge in achieving varsity status?

Ricketson: First we sat down with the Senior Vice President of GW, Dr. Robert Chernak. He helpfully advised us on what issues would need to be resolved in order for a varsity sailing program to be considered. We then did enormous amounts of research, and worked closely with several of the most knowledgeable varsity coaches from around the country to construct our case. Guys like Jay Sterne (ICSA Graduate Secretary) Mike Callahan (Georgetown), Mitch Brindley (Old Dominion, ICSA President) and Adam Werblow (St. Mary's) spent many hours of their time helping us, and enthusiastically lobbied on our behalf. We are extremely grateful for their support. 

US Sailing: What were the significant challenges you were faced with?

Ricketson: We needed to make the case that adding sailing to GW Athletics would not only make sense for our team, but for the school as a whole. Luckily, we had already proved ourselves to be reasonably competitive and visible within MAISA. After that, we relied on the many inherent advantages that college sailing enjoys, like Title IX neutrality, relatively low annual cost compared to some other sports, small footprint on existing facilities, and more. The list of pros, happily, is long. The sport of sailing, in my opinion, translates extremely well to college athletics.

US Sailing: What university channels did you need to connect with? What type of interactions did you have with the athletic department and other university officials?

Ricketson: Developing solid relationships with all levels of the administration was key. It was tempting at times to push back against officials and get frustrated when we ran into misperceptions or indifference regarding our sport. However, we were able to keep the dialogue positive, and eventually won over many of the administrators at GW. Several became active fans of our team, since we made them feel like they had a stake in our success. Everybody loves an underdog story, after all!

US Sailing: How long did this process take?

Ricketson: The process of creating and submitting the proposal took several months. However, reshaping ourselves into a program that really focused on intercollegiate racing, rather than recreation, took about 2-3 years.

US Sailing: What are your recommendations to other college sailing programs that are going through this process or considering it?

Ricketson: Before you ask your school for help or improved status, adopt a varsity mindset on your own. Show that you can be both competitive on the water, and responsible off it. Recruit hard and promote hard. Take pictures, shoot video. Do your best to create an image of your team that the school will find attractive. If they can see something already in existence that closely resembles a varsity program, especially if alumni and parents are enthusiastically involved, it is a much easier sell. Work hard first, and then carefully pick your moment to make a proposal. The main thing is to avoid asking for too much too soon, and get off to a bad start with your athletic department leaders.

US Sailing: What will the program have access to now? What are the benefits?

Ricketson: GW University has an excellent NCAA Division 1 athletic department. We will be fully integrated into their administrative structure, which will ensure the professionalism and stability of the program going forward. We have had a lot of success with our current structure of student leadership, but as the team became more ambitious in its goals, the strains on those student leaders became more intense. Attaining varsity status will allow our athletes to once again focus their attention towards on-the-water performance and their class work. We honestly have a great deal of respect for the leaders of our athletic department, and can't wait to work with them. We are extremely proud of the team that we built, and wouldn't entrust it to people who wouldn't take good care of it. I believe that the sky is the limit in terms of our future performance.

US Sailing: Who played a big role in making this happen?

Ricketson: Almost too many people to count. First and foremost, our athletes (and their families) who showed such unbelievable dedication to the team when the idea of varsity status wasn't even on the radar. We also had an experienced coach, Jay Sterne, freely offer a great deal of his time in terms of event coaching and administrative advice. Our school officials, especially GW Vice President Dr. Robert Chernak, GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero, Assistant AD's Jason Wilson and Brian Hamluk, team faculty advisor Joe Bondi and Recreation Sports Director Aubre Jones. The whole MAISA conference community has our thanks as well for lending us endless amounts of helpful support.

Finally, we owe an immense debt to the Georgetown Sailing Team and Head Coach Mike Callahan. They literally took us in off the street when we lost access (from lack of funds) to our old, rented fleet of FJ's in 2008. They allowed us to use their boats until we raised enough money for our own, and even integrated us into their daily drills. Their encouragement allowed us to believe that we could become competitive. I hope the two teams remain close partners and friendly rivals long into the future.


  1. Thanks for this positive story about college sailing. It would also be interested to hear some success stories about colleges forming new sailing clubs. Here in western Pennsylvania, there are student initiatives at two universities (Indiana University of PA; University of Pittsburgh) to develop new sailing teams at the club level. Challenges include fleet development -- and how to demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm and participation in order to justify funding for fleet development.
    Ken Sherwood

  2. This is a great story. You guys earned it hard. My team knows this struggle as well; we are always working harder to reach a higher level. I'm happy to hear that fellow college sailors made a great thing, earning varsity status, happen, and I'm proud to be associated with sailors like you all!