A Medal in Every Class
After working 35 years in Washington, D.C., as a preeminent labor lawyer under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Sam Merrick applied his considerable organizational and diplomatic skills to guiding the sport he loved.
Known as an ultimate competitor, Merrick had long raced E Scows, Thistles, and Solings out of Bay Head, New Jersey, and Annapolis, Maryland. He had finished a creditable seventh in the 1972 Olympic Soling trials against a “who’s who” lineup of American sailors. “He was one of the best downwind sailors of all time,” says ISAF vice president Gary Jobson, who crewed for Sam as a teenager. “He helped me figure out how to be a tactician by asking me questions – ‘which side do you like, what’s the wind doing.’ I started talking, became his eyes and ears. He prepped me for Ted Turner.”
Jonathan Harley, head sailing coach of the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island, who worked with Merrick when he was Chairman of the U.S. Olympic Yachting Committee, also crewed for Sam during an Annapolis frostbite series in Solings. “In the boat,” Harley says, “he only ever said two words: `Where’s Stuart?’” Merrick’s intense rivalry with eight-time Soling national champion Stuart Walker was legendary.
Merrick brought that passion for winning with him when he took over the Olympic Yachting Committee in 1976. “Dick Stern, who was chairman of the Committee, said he needed someone to run the show,” Jobson says. “I suggested Sam Merrick. Dick needed a reference. I said to ask Buddy Melges. Buddy told him Sam is the guy who will take us into the next century.”
Merrick fashioned the trials after the Olympic Games format. Only U.S. sailors participated, and the winner took all. But the strong team Merrick forged was blindsided by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics. Merrick’s toughest job was to persuade his sailors not to throw in the towel. “Sam was a quintessential politician in the LBJ mold,” Jobson says. “He could put his arm around your shoulders and win you over.”
“Sam expected us to medal in every class,” says Robert Hopkins, Jr., head coach of the 1984 team. “He was the perfect fit for the job facing us in1980, the right guy to rebuild team morale, focus on Los Angeles, and establish a priority of winning medals without being overly discouraged by short term results. His achievement of leading the team to seven medals (three gold, four silver) in seven events is unmatched.”
– Roger Vaughan