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Still winning all these years

Melges legend keeps growing with another win

MASTER OF THE WATER -- Buddy Melges is a sailing legend. And the 80-year-old is still winning races. Here are some of his greatest accomplishments: n 1964 Olympic bronze medalist n 1967 Pan-American gold medalist n 1972 Olympic gold medalist n 1992 America's Cup winner n 2001 America's Cup Hall of Fame inductee n 2002 Inland Lake Yachting Association Hall of Fame inductee
September 22, 2010 | 08:33 AM
Fontana — He's one of the biggest names in sports, and he lives in our backyard.

For 75 years now, the 80-year-old Buddy Melges has dedicated his life to sailing, and he has the medals to prove it. A former America's Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist, Melges hasn't lost a step.

At the recent Inland Lakes Yachting Association championships on Geneva Lake, Melges and his team won first and second place in two different A scow races. Melges beat out competitors from all over the Midwest including Michigan, Missouri and Indiana.

In the race he won, Melges was trailing halfway through but pulled out the victory in the end.

"There was so much wind that day (back in August)," he said. "Playing shifts is very important. All of a sudden, the white caps were coming in our face, so we knew it would be a big wind shift. We adjusted our direction at about 100 miles an hour. Being able to see what the wind is doing before it comes on your boat is a key to racing well."

Then, the next day, Melges finished second but his crew easily won the title thanks to the highest point total.

The winning Melges team consisted of A scow boat owner John Anderson, who picked Buddy to drive and assemble a crew.

"He's been a wonderful person to have on your boat," Buddy said. "He's a successful businessman in Rockford."

John's son-in-law, Ryan Fitzgerald, also was on the team. Buddy said the two have sailed together for a long time.

Another member was David Navin, who has sailed with Buddy for nearly 25 years.

"David came to me in the America's Cup in Austrailia in 1986," Buddy said. "He's very valuable. He sets up the rig, and it's very important to the boat. I trust him."

Next was Greg Gifford, who Buddy joked is a "big boy" at around 240 pounds. Buddy said Greg's size is vital.

"Greg is nice to have for handling the spinnaker," he said. "There is no mechanical advantage, just string on string, so a guy with Greg's strength is very necessary."

Also on the team were Burlington's Chris Imben and Griffin Rolander. Rolander winters in Ohio and summers in Lake Geneva, according to Buddy.

"Griffin is an excellent junior boat sailor," Buddy said. "He is just a pleasure to have on board. It's a credit to our sailing school which has done such a great job exposing these young people to sailing."

As for Buddy, he was the man driving the boat. He equated sailing to flying.

"I have to position the boat on the course where I want to be," he said. "You try to draft on the guy behind you. When flying, you take off and you get shot out of the seat due to turbulence. There's probably an airplane in front of you that makes a hole in the air. With sailing, the sailboat in front of you makes a hole in the air."

Growing up on Delavan Lake in the 1930s, Buddy began sailing and eventually switched to Lake Geneva for sailing in 1942. Buddy's grandparents owned a hotel resort on Delavan Lake in the 1930s and 40s, so his life was the lake.

Buddy and another Lake Geneva local, Bill Benson, had their first taste of medals in the 1964 Olympics, when they won a bronze medal. In 1967, Buddy earned a Pan-American games gold medal. After winning an Olympic gold medal in 1972, Buddy tried his hand at the America's Cup in 1992. In the event, two sailors race one-on-one. The winner keeps the cup and can be challenged by anybody from any country. It is the oldest known trophy in the international sport. Buddy was the last American to hold the Cup until this year, when it was won by a yacht club from San Francisco.

Buddy loves the challenge of sailing.

"In America's Cup, the tactics are very different," Buddy said. "The boats get very close to each other. I like sailing because you're pitting yourself against Mother Nature. It's a competition. There are so many things you can take advantage of as far as the wind."

Buddy has also helped out with his successful business, Melges Performance Sailboats, which was started in 1946. MPS built all of the boats in the ILYA championships. In 1992, they also started three offshore models, including Slovenia and Trinidad.

"My son Harry III owns it now, I'm retired," Buddy said. "He is doing a fantastic job. And my son Hans helps with the business."

Buddy said that he wants to sail until "they carry me off of my boat." He loves how sailing has little to do with age.

"I often say that you can sail from ages 8 to 80," he said. "It's a wonderful situation. You can sail at any age and be competitive. It's very pleasurable and relaxing. And it takes you away from the office."

Buddy also sailed during Labor Day weekend. He even got in some travel as he headed up to Canada to fish and duck hunt. Buddy said his other passion is training labradors, a hobby he does in Honey Creek.

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