‘I am not a medal maker, the sailors are the medal-makers’ says Australian sailing super coach Victor Kovalenko who has coached thirteen 470 World Championship titles winners and eight 470 Olympic-medal winning crews.
Back in 1980, the Ukrainian-borne Flying Dutchman and 470 Class sailor was a proud and successful member of the Soviet sailing team.
‘We were a full time professional squad. I was sailing with Soviet sailing legends and I was learning from them, their spirit and their attitude and their knowledge’, explains Kovalenko. ‘We had a system with sport scientists and psychologists as the top teams do today. If you had the letters CCCP on your chest, the level of recognition in the country, of national champions was very high.
‘I always had an Olympic dream in my heart, and I was selected for the Los Angeles 1984 Soviet Union team but I retired when the Soviet Union decided to boycott the Games.
‘My dream was unfulfilled and so I turned to coaching and I took the Soviet 470 squad in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, with an Olympic bronze medal result.
Victor Kovalenko -
‘The first time I came to Australia was in 1991 for the 470 World Championship in Brisbane, and I stayed on to help Australia’s Jenni Lidgett and Addy Bucek with their 470 Olympic campaign. They were the training partners of our Ukrainian girls. I fell in love with Australia.
‘After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian team had very little equipment; the Russians had taken it all. Prior to the Atlanta Olympic Games, we focused on skill and then just before the games we got some really top equipment and we were ready to race. We were ready mentally and we won the first sailing medals for Ukraine, the 470 men’s gold and 470 women’s bronze.
Following his Atlanta success with the Ukrainian team, Kovalenko accepted an offer from Yachting Australia and moved to Australia in October 1997 with his wife, Tatiana, and son.
‘When I took over the Australian Men’s and Women’s 470 team, we were a year behind in preparation. We had to find something special to give us a chance. With the Games coming to Sydney, we found the passion to win.’ And win they did - Jenny Armstrong and Belinda Stowell and Tom King and Mark Turnbull took double 470 Gold.
Tom King, Belinda Stowell, Victor Kovalenko, Jenny Armstrong and Mark Turnbull at Closing Ceremony of Sydney 2000 - Sydney 2000 - © Victor Kovalenko
In January 2003, Kovalenko, became an Australian citizen. He said at the time ‘I love Australia. I love the people and the gold and green hills - Australia is my love affair.’
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kovalenko celebrated another double victory with Nathan Wilmot and Malcolm Page and Elise Rechichi and Tessa Parkinson winning gold.
Kovalenko was named the 2008 Australian Institute of Sport Coach of the Year.
‘My Olympic dream was a big drive from me, not only for me but also all of my family. I cannot talk about success without thanking my wife, Tatiana, we have been together for 38 years now. A lot of time she just pushes me. She says you are strong, you are my hero, and you have to do this job. She is a very, very special person in my life and I would not have reached this success without her in my life.
Kovalenko is called ‘the medal maker’ but he disagrees. ‘No, I am just helping my sailors win medals – I help them find the key to unlock their potential – they are the medal makers… (does that make Victor, the locksmith?)
He explains ‘Now all teams are so good, extremely good, and the difference between the winner and the loser is just very tiny.
‘All people have become much more professional, and at the very top the skill level is so close and the tactics are quite standard. The winners now use the same tactics as the winners back in years gone by.
Strategies are changing a little bit because we have now much more information, a lot of modern tools to explore the strategy area but this is levelling out too.
The difference now is Character. (the Big C)
‘It’s very, very difficult with your opponents but much more difficult with yourself because you can make excuses to yourself. Then all of this happens in the head. Most of all it is a mental battle and I have to help each athlete unlock their potential.’
‘‘ For the 2012 Olympics, Qingdao 470 gold medalist Malcolm Page is teamed with his former rival skipper Mathew Belcher. They are ranked number one in the world and are the current world champions.
But Kovalenko says ‘Right now the French Men’s 470 team - Pierre Leboucher and Vincent Garos - are winning the mental battle, at this stage. They have an edge in the last two regattas that counted.
‘They have been training much more than us. Mathew and Malcolm have spent quite a bit of time sailing other classes, not full time with us and, the French, they love training in the sea and that difference has given them the edge at the moment.
‘This is a psychology button and they have the edge.
‘Now Malcolm and Mat are training harder. You can see Malcolm now quite often on the bike, quite often in the gym. Much more open for a challenges than before and he is not polishing the keel of Farr 40. He is now more on the wire planning the race. Now we are much more centred and our system is now much stronger.
‘We've been training hard as well as working heavily on equipment and I'd like to think we have some surprises come the Olympic Games,’ Page says.
Kovalenko continues his assessment ‘Besides the French there are lots of teams that are improving at this critical stage.
‘Nick Rogers is one of those. They have the U.S. coach Morgan Reether from USA and Australian Qingdao 470 Gold medalist Nathan Wilmot coaching and waving the Union Jack for them.
‘Stu McNay and Graham Biehl from the United States are rising fast, too. Now they have French coach Romain Bonnaud is coaching them and they have improved a lot. We have learned from them a lot in light-medium winds.
‘Winning at Perth 2011 will be a big step for all the teams, after all 75 percent of the Olympic berths will be decided here. Of course there is a little bit of more time between Perth and the Olympic Games that I would say Perth will be a big indicator of who is who.
‘The top six or seven people, there is not much difference between them.
‘We have our internal ranking and they are always counting who’s who and they know who is performing well and they can feel they are there. It’s not about results. It is all about fighting in the field. Athletes, they can feel each other.
'They can feel how strong their energy is and who is the top performer and who just lacking some regattas or someone is unlucky and they say, ‘ah geez, unlucky this time but it was a very tough performance.’
‘And they know all of this. As I said this is not about results from the sailing. This is about feelings in the battlefield.
‘I love Australia. I love the people. I love the climate but mostly for the Australian people, friendly and really tough.
‘Look at the sporting results. Twenty million people and fighting for fifth or sixth at the Olympic Games behind Russia, China, behind United States. It’s a fantastic result and it’s all about skill and toughness. And now current sailors like Mathew Belcher, Malcolm Page, Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge, and Iain Jensen can take Australia forward again.
He says ‘We have just 272 days to the next Olympics so there is still time to make sure we win this battle. Asked is the count-down on his computer or his phone. He smiles ‘in my heart.’