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Crunch time for Japan's Finn sailors at 2019 Finn Gold Cup

by Cora Zillich 11 Dec 2019 23:52 PST 13-21 December 2019
Ready Steady Tokyo - Olympic Test Event, Enoshima, Japan © Robert Deaves

Seven months out from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic sailing competition, all eyes will be on Melbourne next week, with the Olympic Finn class to contest their 2019 world championship, the 2019 Finn Gold Cup, on Port Phillip.

The event has attracted over 60 sailors from 21 countries with the large majority of those who are expected to contest the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the event.

The current world top 20 ranked Finn sailors will all be contesting the Finn Gold Cup, including defending world champion Zsombor Berecz from Hungary, 2017 world champion and dual Olympian Max Salminen from Sweden, world #1 Jorge Zarif from Brasil as well as Rio 2016 Olympic champion Giles Scott from Great Britain - to name just a few. Australian Sailing Squad's representatives of Rio Olympian Jake Lilley (QLD) and Oliver Tweddell (VIC) will also be at the start line with the event doubling up as the Oceania qualifying event for Tokyo 2020.

Amongst this stellar line-up of the world's best Finn sailors will also be four Finn sailors from next year's Olympic Games host country Japan, who are vying to represent their country at Tokyo 2020 next year.

Olympics are the pinnacle of Olympic sailing and representing your country at a home-Olympics is most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity and very special honour.

"We are the host country and this is the only chance for us to go to Olympic Games in our country. So, there's a lot at stake and a lot of excitement involved. A lot of people have no chance to do what we do, so we are the lucky ones," Yuki Nishio said about the honour to be able to represent his country at the world championships and race for Olympic selection.

"It's extra motivation to have the Games in our country. And for us Japanese people, we don't want to disappoint anyone, we don't want to let anyone down. Either way we want to do our best to go to the Games and when we go to the Games we want to make everyone proud. We want to make all the people in Japan proud and even though we don't have much history in Finn sailing in Japan, we can make history," Alex Kokumai agreed.

Yuki Nishio and Alex Kokumai are currently the top ranked sailors in pursuit of Olympic glory at their home Games with Yuji Fujimura and Yoshiki Sato also hoping for their opportunity.

As host nation, Japan is guaranteed one of the 19 Finn class places in Tokyo, but who will get the Japanese spot is yet to be decided with the Finn Gold Cup in Melbourne one of the two selection races to decide the Japanese representative in the Finn class at Tokyo next year.

"This is the first trial for the Olympics and it's the Gold Cup so the top sailors in the world have come here, they are all very high level and we will have to be in the top 19 countries to get the points we need for Olympic selection," Yuki Nishio explained.

"We only have two selections. This one and next year's Gold Cup in Palma so it will be hard but I'm very excited because Melbourne is a good place with a good breeze, weather and good waves also. Enoshima (Tokyo 2020 sailing venue) can have big swells and also Melbourne has big waves from the South so it can be very similar to the Olympic venue and this is good selection practice for Tokyo. I'm sure it will be a good regatta and I will do my best," Nishio added.

While Yuki Nishio and Alex Kokumai are training together under Australian coach and former Finn sailor Rob McMillan, ultimately only one of them will get to compete in Tokyo. But with the Japanese squad all relative newcomers to the Finn, who have only sailed the class for less than two years, they know how important collaboration is in order to produce the best sailor and make Japan proud at the Games.

"We share a lot of information on the race course and during training. So even though we are competing against each other we are still a team and we are still good friends. But we want to see who is the best to go to the Games and during the race we will be competing against each other. When we come back to land though, we are still good friends. Let's say, if I lose and Yuki goes to the Games, I will still cheer for him and I will help him at the Games and I'm sure he would do the same, that's sportsmanship," Alex Kokumai said.

"We sacrificed a lot to actually make this happen. Yuki is in medical school and he had to take a break and I think that's very tough to do, especially in medical school when you want to become a doctor. And for myself, I did the Youth America's Cup and before then I did the 470s, 420s, I did the worlds and I think all of that will come together right here, so I don't want to lose to Yuki. But I'm pretty sure that he doesn't want to lose to me either."

Getting to the stage where they are at now has been a team effort, by the Finn class as whole as well as thanks to the support of their Sydney based Australian coach Rob McMillan, who has been a successful Finn sailor since the late 1980s, first in the UK with several Olympic campaigns, and then in Australia and has been coaching several international Finn sailors over the years.

"I contacted Rob to buy a second hand boat at the start of last year and I told him that it was my first time doing the Finn sailing and to please help me out. Only after I came down to Sydney and went out for a sail with him, I figured out that he is a really good Finn sailor and since we only had two years to the Games, I wanted Rob to coach us, he knows the Finns and knows a lot of people all around the world," Alex Kokumai said about the start of their collaboration.

"I also started in April last year and even though I was always a sailor that was the first time I touched a Finn. Rob taught us everything about the Finns and we can practice with all the other sailors in the world which is good." Yuki Nishio added.

Yuki Nishio and Alex Kokumai have been working over a year and half with Rob McMillan now and have made a lot of progress.

"They both came to Woolhara individually for their first sail. Alex came first and then Yuki came and they have come a long way since then. They both come from very different pathways, one will be a professional sailor and the other one is going to be a surgeon and here we are pursuing our dreams," Rob McMillan, who is also the director of NB Sailsports, said.

"When we started this program we were really at the bottom of the pile, but I think we've been very honest about what our objectives are. There was no point going to the Olympics and being totally noncompetitive. They agree they wanted to work together openly and transparently and agreed to share everything they learnt which is very noble. It gets a little bit more interesting now because this is crunch time," McMillan added about their working relationship.

"We've also had fantastic support from the federation, a very pragmatic understanding of what we are trying to achieve and a great commitment from the guys in terms of trying to reach the physical standard, in terms of weight, fitness and obviously the level of sailing as well as their understanding of the boat. And how they've taken to it has been impressive," McMillan added.

"We want to be a credit to Japan when we go to the Olympics and we want to be strong gold fleet sailors. We want to be in the top half of the fleet racing hard and showing our capability. We don't want to be in the bottom half. So, you won't hear us talk about winning medals, you will hear us talk about achieving the performance we are proud of given the time we've had available," McMillan outlined the tasks at hand.

Over the one and a half years the Japanese Finn sailors have worked on their Olympic campaign, they not only experience the strong support of their federation and their coach, but also that of the class as well as the Australian Sailing Team, who like Rob McMillan are also based in Sydney.

"I'm very grateful to Rafa (Australian Sailing Finn coach) and the Australian Sailing Team. We've had a really good experience training with them and the Finn community at large, which is always accepting of other countries. Transparency of knowledge, collaboration, the welcoming of nations in the Finn family who we haven't seen in the Finn before, that to me has been one of the highlights. People want to share, they want to see other people become competitive, there really is a great spirit around the fleet," McMillan described the support.

Racing starts at Royal Brighton Yacht Club on Monday, 16 December 2019 with Tokyo 2020 the end goal for most. 15 out of the 19 Tokyo 2020 country spots have been already decided, but only four sailors have already secured their country selection and Olympic ticket.

However, according to Yuki Nishio and Alex Kokumai, not only sailors should be aiming to go to the Tokyo Olympic Games, but also spectator and fans.

"Japan is a very cultural place and a lot of people enjoy that and at the same time this will be the second Tokyo (Summer) Olympics and Japan is really working hard to put on the best Olympics they've ever done. I'm pretty sure everyone is going to love it when they go. It will be humid, it will be hot but everyone will try their best and we will see the best hospitality," Alex Kokumai said.

"Japanese love Olympic Games and events and I think a lot of people will come and watch the racing even though they might not know the rules of sailing. It will be a great chance for everyone to get to know sailing and I think it will be a very big regatta," Yuki Nishi added.

The 2019 Finn Gold Cup will start with an Opening Ceremony on Friday 13 December 2019 before racing starts on Monday, 16 December 2019. The final race and medal race is scheduled for Saturday, 21 December 2019.

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