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Friday, 29 July 2016 13:48

East Troy’s Haeger among Olympic gold hopefuls for Americans in Rio

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Annie Hager, front, and Briana Provancha clinched a trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil with their combined finishes at international regattas in Argentina and Spain earlier in 2016. Annie Hager, front, and Briana Provancha clinched a trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil with their combined finishes at international regattas in Argentina and Spain earlier in 2016. Photo courtesy of Rob Migliaccio

EAST TROY -- Annie Haeger believes she didn’t choose her current path in life, it chose her.

Regardless, the East Troy area resident has combined her best qualities -- including athletic ability, work ethic and mental toughness -- to land a spot in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Haeger, 26, and teammate Briana Provancha are among 15 members of the U.S. sailing team heading to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Games are scheduled from Aug. 5 through Aug. 21, while the bulk of the sailing events, consisting of 10 races over five days, are slated Aug. 14 through Aug. 18.

"It’s been an exciting time," Haeger said recently. "I don’t think it hit me until about a month ago, and it was a bit overwhelming. But it’s been something I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl."

Haeger and Provancha, of San Diego, compete in the 470 Class, a double-handed dinghy named for the boat’s length in centimeters. The vessels are not designed for beginners because of their large sail area to weight ratio -- they weigh about 260 pounds and are 15 feet long.

So, the most important factors in determining success are teamwork and being in sync, attributes the two women and former collegiate teammates have mastered since Provancha introduced Haeger to the 470 during Thanksgiving break of the latter’s junior year at Boston College.

Haeger is the helm, whose main responsibilities are the rudder, which steers the boat, and the mainsheet, which regulates the amount of drive for its principal sail. On a double-handed boat, the helm works with the crew, whose tasks include managing the spinnaker, leading out and hiking to keep the boat upright and moving his/her weight fore and aft to trim the boat correctly.

They have been training full time since September 2012 with one goal in mind. And they took the biggest step in realizing that dream this spring, qualifying for Rio by virtue of their performances at two international regattas, in Argentina in February and Spain in April.

And now they could be Olympic champions. However, one wouldn’t have predicted such a scenario in the beginning, especially Haeger.

She was introduced to the sport at age 4, when her parents’ planned trip around the world with their three children only made it to England and France. She cried when, at age 5, she learned that the family Christmas present was an Optimist dinghy.

But that boat, a vessel she refers to as a big bathtub -- a 5- to 6-foot long, 100-pound craft -- is what she cut her sailing teeth on. She started down her current path at age 8 through a class at the Lake Beulah Yacht Club, her home base.

"I was so inexperienced," said Haeger, who graduated from Lake Forest High School in Illinois in 2008. "I was scared of the water, scared of getting hit in the head. I was pretty bad. But after getting some time in the boat, I soon found a love for the sport. Still, I was pretty bad for a really long time … it probably wasn’t until age 11 when I started learning how to steer in these big breezes, which can get pretty hairy at times."

Haeger definitely proved to be an excellent student, and brothers Kent, 27, and William, 24, provided much of the friendly competition and motivation.

"My brothers are very, very talented sailors, and William and I were pretty much in direct competition since he was 7 and I was 9," she said about someone who became a two-time All-American at Tufts University in Boston. "That has pushed both of us."

Haeger honed her skills and established her competitive zeal as a teenager while racing a lot of Laser Radials (13.5 feet long and 130 pounds), an Olympic class boat in which she earned a silver medal at the 2007 Youth Worlds in Canada.

"This is when I found my competitive drive and developed my Olympic aspirations," Haeger said, which the latter event cemented in her mind. "I remember looking up at the girl who won the gold medal, and that’s been my goal ever since."

It’s also where she met Provancha.

"I’m much more shy than Briana, but at the Youth Worlds she just walked up to me and said, ‘We’re going to be friends.’" Haeger said. "She is one of the most determined people I know. We were friends first and became teammates, so it’s not hard to understand why we’ve developed a great level of respect and love. And that pushes us beyond our limits. She is the best crew I could have and the strength of our team."

However, Haeger has more than contributed to the pair’s tremendous accomplishments.

She continued her steady progression and came into her own during her tenure at Boston College, where she graduated in 2012 with a degree in marketing.

"I saw a lot of success and learned how to be a champion, a better teammate and how to better allocate resources," Haeger said.

The results speak for themselves: The four-time Intercollegiate Sailing Association All-American helped the Eagles win back-to-back team trophies in 2010 and ’11 -- a combined score of six men’s, women’s and co-ed categories -- while the women claimed the 2012 national title.

Haeger won three single-handed national crowns and combined with her Olympic partner for the double-handed title as a senior.

She also won the US Sailing’s Yachtswoman of the Year award for 2015, one year after close friend Stephanie Roble.

But all of those accolades are the furthest thing from her mind now. Haeger and Provancha will compete on the same course that they won the Olympics test event in August 2015, so their confidence has been growing ever since as they enter the Games as arguably Team USA’s best shot at a sailing medal.

They left for Rio on July 7 to train until the 19th, returned home for some respite and returned to South America on the 29th.

"I believe we’re ready to go and I can’t wait to get things started," Haeger said. "I’ve dreamed about being at the opening ceremonies and I’m so excited. We’re focused on sailing the way we know how, and if we do that, we’ll be in podium position."

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