by Rob Kothe
In Olympic sailing history there have been two sets of Australian Womens Gold medal performances. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both came in the 470 dinghy class in which super-coach Victor Kovalenko guided teams to victory.
Elise Rechichi and Belinda Stowell
Now just nine months before the 2012 London Olympics, a new Australian 470 Womens pairing, which has never raced at elite level, has sailed into the frame with a stunning first day at Sail Melbourne 2011, the ISAF World Cup Regatta being sailed on Port Phillip Bay.
Back in 2000 Western Australian Belinda Stowell crewed with Jenny Armstrong to win Olympic Gold and in 2008, another 'sand-groper' skipper Elise Rechichi, along with Tessa Parkinson, won the 470 Olympic Gold on the Qingdao course.
Yesterday the 25-year-old Rechichi and the 40-year-old Stowell, after just four weeks of training together, sailed their first event.
Jenny Armstrong and Belinda Stowell - 2003 Sail Melbourne Regatta
It was an amazing first day. Sailing in a mixed Mens and Womens fleet of 21 boats, they were third across the line, ahead of the leading Australian Men’s team – Matt Belcher and Malcolm Page, the 470 Mens World Champions and World Cup Champions – in the first race and finished with two first places in the Womens fleet.
They lead the Japanese duo of Ai Kondo and Wakako Tabata, the world’s top-ranked team, who are on six points, one point ahead of two American crews, Erin Maxwell and Isabelle Kinsolving Farrar, the number two team in the World and the team of Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan.
Everyone in Australian sailing had hoped Rechichi and Parkinson would campaign again after their Beijing win, but after the 2009 Olympic test event, they decided to take a break from high-level sailing and come back fresh to campaign in the new skiff class for Brazil 2016.
Stowell, who started sailing with the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club, WA, is the WAIS Head Sailing Coach (she has been coaching Rechichi and Parkinson since their junior days) and has been heavily involved with the organisation of Perth 2011 and the Emerging Nations Program for that event.
But the urge to return to competitive sailing was pulling at her. Stowell explained ‘Early this year, back in May 2011, Tessa and I, both 470 crew, started a campaign for London with Tessa as helm and myself as crew. We sailed in a number of major regattas, including the Olympic Test event in Weymouth in July.
‘Tessa began to form the view that she was not progressing fast enough, to meet her own targets ahead of the Perth 2011 470 World Championships, the major qualifying event for the 2012 Olympics as a helm. I felt Tessa had made excellent progress. She is very dedicated, very talented, but it is a complex role. She felt that she’d rather take the longer term view aiming for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and she persuaded Elise to come back to sailing with me.
Tessa Parkinson and Elise Rechichi - Beijing Olympics 470 Class gold medallists
‘Elise and I have been training together for four weeks. So we’ve both been back in boat focusing on teamwork, training and now racing. There are some things you don't forget, you just need to sharpen.
'Well it’s been a positive start; it’s been a gift to have Sail Melbourne, then soon the 470 Nationals in Perth ahead of the Perth 2011 Worlds, all in our own backyard.
‘What we are doing here we know is a big ask – four weeks of training before our first World Cup event. We are working hard and focusing, just want to qualify Australia if we can and see what happens from there.'
The Royal Perth Yacht Club sailor Rechichi was smiling this afternoon. ‘Tessa and I last raced at Sail for Gold in Weymouth (GBR) in 2009. We did not want to shut the door on Olympic sailing. Brazil had been announced as the venue for 2016 and we decided we would take a break for a few years and then come back with the aim of doing the skiff in Brazil.
‘I think I underestimated how hard it would be sitting out on the sidelines, and for the first year or so I was quite happy with my decision. Then this time last year I started to realise that I was given the opportunity and I missed competing and I would like to be back competing.
‘As it was Tess decided she would like to helm which I supported and then she ended up sailing with Belinda so it wasn’t until, I guess very late in the piece in September, when Tessa decided she wanted to focus on helming for Brazil.
‘Over the last few seasons I’ve been heavily involved in triathlon. I did a half ironman in Western Australia in May. You have to be super fit for triathlons so cardiovascular and running and cycling .. very fit. It’s quite different when you are in a boat and then hiking and you think completely differently.
‘It has taken me a little bit to get back into the sailing fitness but having done the triathlon has given me a really high base level fitness and my body is a lot more resilient than it was four years ago. It’s certainly been a positive thing.
‘Sailing fitness-wise, it’s funny which muscles actually hurt. My ankle hurt and my neck hurt from hiking. That passed after the two-week mark.
‘You know, I think for us in terms of speed and boat handling, all the signs are positive for us training-wise.
‘We expect that while things are promising, just purely because we haven’t had the time in the boat, things will break down so results-wise don’t expect too much this week.
‘If some things fall apart, it is not the end of the world. It just means we need to work on the areas where it is falling apart. You need to have those positive signs. For us this week we will be looking at establishing how exactly we work together in a more, I guess, realistic pressured race environment.
Elise Rechichi and Belinda Stowell
‘There are certainly areas in the racing where we are still getting used to each other and in some instances when you need to have great confidence in your boat handling to throw a tricky manoeuvre. At the moment we don’t have it, so we are still limited by our lack of time in the boat, but at this point only four weeks in, we are finding things promising.
‘I have to do my University of WA Commerce exams in between Sail Melbourne and the Nationals so a little bit tricky trying to balance that, but it is what it is, I go well with lots of things on my plate.
‘Belinda and I are quite a lot heavier than Tessa and I were when we won in the light weather venue in Qingdao. I am still on the smaller side of helm but four years on, I am a lot more robust and the triathlon, although you have to be super lean to be a triathlete, has helped me develop a lot more muscle mass. That will be important for Perth 2011 because indications in training in heavy wind in speed testing are good and that we are certainly not far off the money.
‘We have tried to keep it pretty quiet and just focus on what we had to do. I guess we understand that it is pretty late in the Olympic cycle to start together. It’s one thing to make a big announcement and to not deliver so we hope that we’ll last.
‘But after today, two wins, we are really happy. First of all nice to be out racing and nice to be racing amongst the gang.
‘When we are boat handling the lack of time together shows, but on the whole we played our strategy pretty safe and we didn’t let small mistakes become massive ones. We actually sailed pretty conservatively.
‘We are serious about this effort. Belinda being the gold medalist in Sydney and me from Beijing, we certainly know what it takes and I didn’t come back to be a tourist, so there is a long way to go from here but at this stage all the indications are pretty positive. ‘
If day one of the 2011 World Cup is an indicator, Australia may have found its next 470 Golden Girls.