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Jo Aleh: "Struggling to find where your heart sits"

by Suzanne McFadden 30 Nov 2018 13:38 PST 1 December 2018

Jo Aleh devoted 12 years of her life to sailing a dinghy day-in, day-out, in her quest for Olympic glory.

When she walked away from her boat, exhausted but clutching gold and silver Olympic medals, she tried to find her next big challenge behind a desk.

But the transition into the corporate world hasn’t completely worked. And she’s found herself drawn back to the ocean - this time, as a sailing coach.

“I haven’t managed to switch over to normal life,” the 32-year-old says. “It didn’t stick well enough.”

She’s been working in the Auckland office of professional services firm Ernst & Young for the past year, in the area of performance improvement. The opportunity came through the company’s global campaign to help athletes transition into the workforce.

“The hardest thing I found outside sport was the struggle to find where your heart sits. Working with companies and money is not what I’m used to, and it’s hard to find the meaning in it,” she says.

“The passion piece isn’t really there for me. With sport, it’s so clear. It’s purely trying to perform and reach those targets. It’s not about the money or egos; at the end of the day, it’s all about the performance you left out on the water.”

Now Aleh is trying to find her middle ground – working part-time for Ernst & Young, while coaching Kiwi sailors towards their own Olympic dreams. And, at the same time, wanting to make a statement for women coaches.

She has to admit this is far from what she intended to do when she gave up Olympic sailing - having won gold in London 2012 and silver in Rio 2016 in the 470 dinghy with Polly Powrie.

She’d set her sights on sailing around the world in last year’s Volvo Ocean Race, but missed out after trialling with Team Brunel.

“After Rio, I said I’d never coach,” she says. “But when you know so much about Olympic sailing, it’s really nice to give back. Basically it’s the same as what I used to do, in the same world and the same community, but with a whole lot less stress and pressure.”

She’s been dabbling in coaching with different Kiwi crews at international regattas during the year, but is now focused on the two Nacra 17 crews aiming for Tokyo 2020.

The Nacra is the Olympic foiling catamaran sailed by a mixed crew, and New Zealand has two crews ranked in the world’s top 20 – Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders, who narrowly missed out on a medal in Rio, and Liv Mackay and Micah Wilkinson.

Aleh wants to coach these sailors through to Tokyo. “They’re great fun to work with, and all the potential is there,” she says.

“I’m enjoying learning something new. I already know how to get performance out of myself, but trying to encourage or enable others is quite different. I didn’t really want to coach the 470s, because I just knew I’d get frustrated, feeling like I could hop into the boat at any stage.”

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