September 8, 2016

Team Barrows-Morris: 49er Sailors on the Road Home from Rio

Joseph Morris and Thomas Barrows represented Team USA in the 49er skiff in Rio di Janeiro.

US Olympic 49er sailors Joe Morris and Thomas Barrows give us the low-down on how they decided who got to helm, the new Zhik Avalare gear, and the likelihood of a Tokyo 2020 campaign.

Whitecaps Marine Outfitters was proud to support US 49er sailors Joe Morris and Thomas Barrows on their road to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio di Janeiro. Even though the games are over, their schedules are just as busy with a new Melges 20 team, Joe getting ready to coach at Yale (their Alma Mater) this fall and Thomas preparing for the J/70 Worlds in San Francisco. But we were able to catch up with them via email to learn about their experience in Brazil and find out what else is next for these two up-and-coming sailors.

Whitecaps: You met when you were both sailing as helmsman, but when you teamed up to sail the 49er, one would have to drive, one would have to crew—was it an obvious choice who would do what position and how did you decide?

Joe & Thomas: We get this question a lot. There were a number of pros and cons to each. Both Thomas and I were helms in our previous Olympic class experience—Thomas in the Laser in 2008 representing the US Virgin Islands and Joe on the US Sailing team helming in the 470. Thomas had been helming the 49er for about 18 months with a crew from the Virgin Islands when we teamed up. Joe was coming from working a desk job in Switzerland and wasn’t nearly in good enough shape to crew in the 49er at first so at the beginning, we traded off the helm, but Joe had a good amount of experience trapeze crewing while growing up and with Thomas’s experience on the helm of the 49er, that seemed to make the most sense. We moved out to San Francisco to challenge ourselves in the windy conditions while also running Joe through a 49er fitness bootcamp. With a lot of hard work in the gym, and an insane amount of food, after about seven months he’d put on 25 pounds to become a more efficient crew and Thomas got a lot more experience in breezy driving. In the end, this was a great strength of ours in the windy races during the trials.

Mark roundings were crowded in such a tight Olympic fleet.

Whitecaps: For Thomas, this was your second Olympics, for Joe your first—how were your perspectives and expectations for the Games the same or different?

Joe & Thomas: We talked a lot about this and in short, it really wasn’t very different for us. Thomas had experienced the circus that is the Games and Joe had not. Some people feel the pressure when they are looked at as contenders; for us, it was pretty easy to put the headphones in and just go do our jobs each day. It is a very special feeling because everyone recognizes that you are there to be professional and do your job, and sometimes that goes unrecognized in Olympic sailing.

Whitecaps: Besides Olympic qualification, what has been your greatest success to date (individually and together)?

Joe & Thomas: It’s funny—after doing an intense campaign in an extreme class, all the things that rush to mind are small victories, for example, the days when you’re not just able to survive in survival conditions, but actually start racing with the big dogs in the fleet. In terms of more concrete success, we won a J/70 East Coast Championship, which we were using mainly to work on our communication in a less stressful environment; our communication in the 49er was much more concrete after that. Individually, we were both four-time All Americans at Yale. Two of those years we overlapped, which laid the foundation for our friendship and our professional relationship.

Joe and Thomas say their time spent sailing together at Yale laid the foundation for their friendship and professional relationship.

Whitecaps: What has been the toughest hurdle on you “Road to Rio”?

Joe & Thomas: Our campaign was different than many in the sense that we basically ran on a shoestring budget from 2013 – 2015. Just having enough money to eat and train was a massive financial challenge, not to mention doing the full circuit of events in Europe. We had to take a lot of time off to do other sailing events in order to pay for the 49er campaign, which kind of held us at a plateau for a frustrating amount of time. After taking time off for an injury and using it to fundraise, we were able to hit the gas hard 2015 and sail full time like the other teams. We managed to scrape together enough money for a new boat for the trials. Funding is always a challenge for everyone, but without sponsors such as Whitecaps, who helped provide us with gear that we never would have been able to afford, the campaign wouldn’t have gotten very far. That being said, the struggle made us a whole lot stronger in the end, although maybe not as prepared for the Olympics as we would have liked.

Whitecaps: You were wearing Zhik gear in Rio including the new Avlare. How do you like it?

Joe & Thomas: The new Avlare line was fantastic. To sum it up in one word: versatility. We were amazed how well it performed on light, sunny, and flat water days inside the bay as well as breeze on, wavy, windy days out in the ocean. The Z Skin tops were also a favorite of ours. Everything they make is great, and it’s literally the only brand in our kit.

On behalf of our team, we just want to say a HUGE thank you to Whitecaps Marine & Zhik for their support over the past several years. We cannot say thank you enough for keeping us in the right gear to perform on the biggest sporting stage in the world!

Whitecaps: What was it like to pop that huge American flag spinnaker for the first time?

Joe & Thomas: We just couldn't stop smiling. I (Joe) had the picture of Erik Storck and Trevor Moore sailing with that kite in 2012 as the background of my computer for four entire years—I’m still staring at it right now. It just perfectly symbolized what the Games are all about. We were representing our country to the best of our abilities, and it really fired us up in a good way.

Joe and Thomas say that huge American flag spinnaker perfectly symbolized what the Games are all about.

Whitecaps: Before the Games, you both said that you’re committed to winning a gold medal in the 49er in Brazil, but sailing is a fickle sport—anything can happen—what final steps did you take to prepare and are you satisfied in the end with your result?

Joe & Thomas: Looking back as the dust is settling after the Games, it’s a mixed bag of emotions. We did not have a stellar performance, but having reflected on it a bit now, we may not have made any major changes to our approach in the final few months. We were behind the international curve once we qualified but showed that we could race in the top 20—and almost top 10—at major World Cup events. The Olympics is only 20 boats but it’s just as hard to pass from 20th to 19th as it is from 2nd to 1st—the level is so high and the class so deep. Our starts, which are usually a big strength and something we rely on, weren’t stellar, and a bad break here and there caused us to be behind from day one. We’re both still proud of how we sailed, know that it could have been better, and are taking some time to analyze the small things we could have changed during the event that would have helped us to a better performance. The learning never ends in sailing and when you have a poor regatta is when you can learn the most.

Whitecaps: 49er racing began in the second week of the Games and athletes typically can attend any of the events they would like as spectators—did you have an opportunity to watch any of the other competitions?

Joe & Thomas: Aside from the Opening ceremonies, watching other sports was the biggest highlight. Seeing all the diversity—the different body types, techniques, powerhouse countries, small island nations, people who excel under pressure and those who crumble—it was just amazing. We saw everything from diving to wrestling, beach volleyball (another highlight) to tennis. It was an experience we’ll never forget.

Whitecaps: What’s next for Team Barrows-Morris? Can we expect to see a run for Tokyo in 2020?

Joe & Thomas: As for our team, we are taking a little bit of time to reflect and do some soul searching. If we go again for 2020, the mission would be a medal and nothing short of it. We’re spending some time doing other sailing (Melges 20, J/70) and are planning to talk about our Olympic sailing futures in a few weeks. Whether it’s 49er sailing or not, we will definitely be working on some projects together for the future.

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