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CHAPTER 2: Sailing

With final preparations underway for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, CSIO presents a new article series highlighting the work we do in supporting athletes, coaches, and sport organizations for the Games. The title of the series is Kaizen – a Japanese word which means continuous improvement, and one that seems so fitting. When training and competition were disrupted, athletes adapted and showed resiliency in their relentless pursuit of the podium, and our staff were right there with them. CSIO staff found innovative ways to provide best-in-class programs and services safely, demonstrating unparalleled Kaizen – Elevating People and Performance in Pursuit of #BuildingChampions. Because #WECAN. 

By David Grossman

Sarah Douglas is an athlete obsessed with a passion for success.

With a bundle of talent and enthusiasm, when the opportunity exists to improve, Douglas pounces on the fortunes with great prosperity and accomplishments, and has a fairly good record of exceeding expectations.

Those who know, or have watched, Douglas, can appreciate her goals and desires. Many have been quite memorable with more to come – like competing for Canada in the women’s laser ILCA 6 sailing event at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

But what further makes her an exceptional person, one purity for perfection in sport, is her thirst for excellence and rewards.

As accomplished in sailing as she is, proficiency is important. Now 27 years of age, she studies the excellence of others, take advice from whomever can assist, and then looks for ways to sharpen her knowledge, training and enhance her performance.

There is a sense of self-animosity in failure for Douglas. Simply put, she doesn’t like to lose.

Born in the Ontario city of Burlington, she moved with her family to Barbados and spent much of her younger years on the Caribbean island. Her parents chose to send her, at age 14, back to Canada to benefit from a private school education at Lakefield College – a boarding school on the outskirts of Peterborough.

A superb student, multi-sport athlete and two-time Most Valuable Sailor award at Lakefield, she also continued a love for sailing – something she picked up at the age of seven at the Barbados Yacht Club, in Bridgetown, the capital of the West Indies country.

A one-time hobby, soon was no longer a craft. It was an infatuation.

Before she was age-eligible to drive a vehicle, Douglas had already competed in North American and World sailing championships. There’s a saying that success breeds success, and Douglas had the benefit of a leader close to home.

Her older brother Greg took the sport to a new personal level after competing in two Olympic Games. A former Canadian champ, he first appeared in Beijing. Four years later, he had a personal best placing of 12th in London at the Summer Games.

By then, Sarah, having studied at the University of Guelph and earning a Degree in Marketing Management, had the urge to be like her brother and challenge for the top. Some would say a touch of sibling rivalry, but nothing serious. She wanted to follow the path of her brother.

“Watching (Greg) was fun and I wanted to be like him – and even better,” she recalled, back when they competed for Barbados until 2008 when the loyalty turned to Canada. “I was 10 years old, my first big race was in Equador at the Optimist World championship and finished 200th of 228. I remember being the last person to make that team. But it was a cool experience and the interest picked up.”

In 2010, attention focussed on her even more, and she competed at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. That same year, she was part of the High Performance Team at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. She went on to train, splitting her time between studies as well as international competitive travel and training.

It was that same year, after a second-place finish at the Youth Nationals, that she suddenly put competitive sailing on the backburner. It surprised many. Instead, she turned to coaching younger sailors at the Ashbridge Bay Yacht Club in Toronto.

Three years after shelving the competitive lifestyle, and at one time being one of the top young sailors in Canada, the urge to compete was back. She had been inspired by a Canadian medallist to get back to being an athlete.

The impossible dream was no longer unthinkable. Winning an Olympic medal was a goal.

Career highlights started to pile up including a Canadian title. In 2019, despite battling a bacterial infection picked up on a plane returning from Japan, a problem that required significant bed rest, she battled back, and won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games, where the sailing competion was held in Peru.

Relentless, there was no stopping Douglas. Even with a pandemic, she used the time to get stronger and find ways to exercise during a period of lockdowns.

“I was ecstatic at qualifying to compete for Canada and then came the downer – COVID,” she said. “It was stressful, Canada pulled out of the Olympics. Competition shutdown and the Olympics were postponed.”

While Douglas, like others, had to reset, she has never forgotten the vital support that she has received from her family. She also had time to heal from an injured back that came after the Pan Am Games. Then, recuperating in Barbados, Douglas was fortunate to train in the warm climate and be near her family.

Douglas is coached by Vaughn Harrison and her relationship with the Toronto-based Canadian Sport Institute Ontario (CSIO)  has been nothing short of superb. She has benefitted from their services including strength and conditioning, mental performance, and nutrition.

“I re-found the joy and why I love sailing so much,” she said. “(CSIO) has been incredibly helpful. For five years, I have grown as an athlete, and the services, the attention, the programs, the resources, I maximized everything. Everything was there, I saw personal progress and it was so inspiring.

“CSIO was a gold mine for me, dedicated space, support – it was a game changer and they all made a massive postive impact on me. Now, I am a better athlete, a better person, stronger and with a mindset that is focussed on being the best. I owe a great deal to that integrated support team and Sheldon Persad has been incredible.”

Douglas used the CSIO facilities in Toronto, after having had no access to a gym for seven months. For her, everything had been home workouts.

While Douglas speaks volumes about the advice and inspiration from her brother Greg, Persad, who has Canada-wide accolades as an excellent strength and conditioning coach, has been a key component to her succcess.

“I remember first seeing her in 2015, focussed on her gifted talent and we worked on enhancing them,” said Persad, who is a co-founder of the Canadian Strength and Conditioning Association. “She has worked very hard and skyrocketed – and now is one of the top female performers in sailing in the world.

“Sailing is a cerebral sport and (Greg) had the physical gifts and talents to be successful at any sport. I tried very hard to not compare them because it wasn’t fair. Right now, from what I can see, there is Olympic medal potential with Sarah. She’s that good and that’s her goal.”

Although a few years age difference, Sarah and her brother never competed against each other. But there was one memorable moment, when they both shared a sonar boat and sailed in the 2016 York Cup Regatta in Toronto. Greg recalled “not being competitive enough for her and she told me so”.

“When she was very young, I remember encouraging her to sail, try the sport, compete and now, she’s definitely the better athlete,” said Greg. “I had a buddy who saw her, said her raw talent would lead to something big. Then, I saw what sailing meant to her a while ago, and she thrives under pressure and has the ability to compete very well against the best.

Chris Hewson, team coach at Ontario Sailing, said the sailing community has reaped huge benefits in the provincial sport’s strong relationship with CSIO over the past decade.

“Most of our strong athletes have been involved with CSIO and benefitted immensely from the services and experience,” said Hewson, who spoke highly of the Ontario High Performance Sport Initiative (OHPSI). “From mental performance to nutrition to strength and conditioning, (CSIO) has been extremely useful and a leader.”

As for family reunion discussions around the dinner table.

“There was a time when people referred to her as Greg Douglas’ younger sister – and I know that pushed her,” he said. “Now, things have changed. People are saying I’m Sarah Douglas’ older brother.”

David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

Media Contact:

Laura Albright, Senior Advisor, Communications & Marketing
Canadian Sport Institute Ontario
Phone: 647.395.7536