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Sydney 2000 and its sailing legacy

by Australian Sailing Team 28 Sep 10:01 PDT
Australian Sailing Team © Australian Sailing Team

The Sydney 2000 Olympics is up there as one of the of the great moments in Australian sailing history. Against the backdrop of Sydney Harbor the Australian Sailing Team delivered their most successful Olympic performance yet, claiming an impressive four medals.

Through their home turf performance, they inspired future generations of sailors cementing Australia as an Olympic sailing powerhouse. Now looking back twenty years on, we speak to our Sydney 2000 Olympians about their most cherished memories and what they are up to now.

Jenny Armstrong OAM and Belinda Stowell OAM

In 2000, Jenny Armstrong OAM and Belinda Stowell OAM were the first Australian women to win an Olympic medal in sailing and broke Australia's medal drought in sailing wining the first Gold medal in 28 years. The pair teamed up in 1998 in the 470 class along with coach Victor Kovalenko OAM. Armstrong, who had represented New Zealand in 1992, moved to Australia to join the Zimbabwe-born Stowell to campaign for Sydney 2000.

"It was a great team effort all round and the whole Australian team did really well so it was just brilliant being part of that," says Armstrong. "Marching into the stadium at the opening ceremony was a highlight. I remember saying to Belinda during ceremony that after this the sailing was going to be a bonus."

"We didn't really have any external pressure on us, it was just internal pressure from ourselves. The sailing team hadn't done well in the past, so we weren't expected to do well. We had a sailing village outside of the big Olympic village so we were really separate from all the hype and we could concentrate on the actual job of sailing which is what we all do well."

"When we did win Gold, and you will hear this a lot from people, it was just a big relief. It was an unbelievable moment where everything you had worked for had come together on the day. The final race was televised live across Australia which was quite a new thing for sailing at the time."

"The Games were an absolute buzz of positivity and an amazing thing for Australia," says Stowell. "It put Sydney on the map."

When asked how the experience changed her, Stowell explains, "It changed my world in so many ways because it gave me that sense of accomplishment and the sense that it is everyone's medal. The ability to make people smile, even to this day, of being able to share my experience as an Olympic Gold medallist is something that I cherish every day."

Stowell went on to compete in two more Olympics and has remained in the sport, coaching sailing at the Western Australian Institute of Sport for the past 16 years. Armstrong competed in one further Olympics and moved back to New Zealand where she coaches youth sailing. The pair were inducted into the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame for their achievements in 2017.

Tom King OAM and Mark Turnbull OAM

The women were followed a few hours later by the men in the 470 class with Tom King OAM and Mark Turnbull OAM also taking out Gold.

"It still seems fresh in the memory although it's a lifetime ago now," says Turnbull. "Tom and I, we turned over every stone. We spent four years travelling the world under the guidance of Victor Kovalenko."

When looking back on the event both said sailing on Sydney Harbour was the biggest highlight. "For us the advantage was having friends and family and being familiar with the conditions," says Turnbull.

King remembers the home crowd being unlike any they had experienced. "We had our highlight about halfway through the race when we managed to catch the American team who won Silver, right off Bradley's Head, in front of a very big crowd," says King. "For us that was an extraordinary experience because we'd never had a crowd attend any of our events."

Since Sydney King has served the Australian sport as chairman of the Australian Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission and on the AOC board. Turnbull runs his own sailing event and marketing company, NewTack Events and continues to inspire the next generation of sailors as the Asian Pacific organiser of the Sailing Champions League club racing series.

Victor Kovalenko OAM

Kovalenko, now known as "The Medal Maker", moved to Australia from the Ukraine in 1997 to coach the two 470 teams to victory at these Olympics.

"Sailing was rewarded in Sydney with two Gold, one Silver and one Bronze medal," says Kovalenko. "The Olympic Games in Sydney changed Australia, changed Sydney and changed the sport of sailing in Australia. Those Games opened the gate to the best."

Over the course of his career, Victor's athletes have won ten Olympic medals (six Gold, one Silver and three Bronze) over eight Olympic Games. His charges have also won more than 18 world championship titles, in addition to dominating European and other international regattas.

Darren Bundock and John Forbes

In the Tornado class, multiple world champions Darren "Bundy" Bundock and John Forbes won Silver. When talking about their highlights from the Games the pair also singled the venue as being part of what made the experience so special.

"My favourite memory of Sydney 2000 was on the first day of racing," says Bundock. "We were towed out to the start line at 9am with no wind and as we passed Bradley's Head the whole headland lit up with fans chanting Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! and everyone on Nelson's Point on the other side of the Harbour returned the chant Oi! Oi! Oi! That just put chills down our spines."

"The Sydney Olympics was my favourite Olympics, not only because it was my first Olympics and on home waters but because sailing was in the spotlight, being on the beautiful harbour in the centre of the city. This was reinforced by having the medal ceremony on the steps of the Opera House which was really unique as only two sports welcomed this."

Both sailors competed in three Olympics each over their sailing careers. Bundock is the Nacra 17 Coach of the Australian 2021 Tokyo Olympic representatives Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin.

Michael Blackburn

This was Michael "Blackers" Blackburn's second of his three Olympic Games as an athlete. Blackburn took our Bronze in the Laser class.

"To be the right age, right temperament, have a bit of athletic skill and have a home Olympics come along was a very special thing to have," says Blackburn. "I moved to Sydney five years before to Games to start training on Sydney Harbour. Sydney Harbour is a great venue for sailing, but the winds can be pretty tricky. There can be some major shifts and the tides can move around a lot so it was really important to get that experience at that venue for a few years beforehand."

"The competition was the continuation of four years hard work against a couple of extremely good sailors called Ben Ainslie and Robert Scheidt. It was such a fantastic life experience and it has set me up really well to do my current job helping Aussies compete well on the international stage."

Blackburn is now the Single-Handed Lead Coach for the Australian Sailing Team. He went on to coach Tom Slingsby and Tom Burton to their own Olympic Golds and hopes to pull in another one next year with Australian 2021 Tokyo Olympic representative Matt Wearn. In 2016 and 2019, he was named Coach of the Year at the Australian Institute of Sport Performance Awards.

A new Australian Sailing Team

The hometown event created a new and unique culture for the team. Soling crew David Edwards is now the Chief Operating Officer at Australian Sailing and he fondly remembers the exuberance the team felt. "The racing was obviously the main focus and while this was a combination of excitement, elation, disappointment and reality, there are a number of other weird and wonderful memories that stick in my mind that made the experience richer," says Edwards.

"I remember talking to a very calm Cathy Freeman twenty minutes before she did a magic act and reappeared to light the cauldron. Walking through the tunnel for the opening ceremony was like nothing else, the noise was louder than a jet engine. It was also incredible to be able to find my parents in the crowd at the end amidst a sea of 120,000 people."

"Being on the water as a team for both the 470 Gold medal wins was remarkable. I became the designated punching bag for Jenny Armstrong's mum who was a nervous wreck. We also had Prime Minister John Howard "drop by" for breakfast with the team."

This was the first Games of Australia's current era of Olympic sailing glory. For the members of this team there was something special that prompted many of them to continue their careers in sailing and work with future generations.

Now twenty years on many of those athletes and coaches continue to support the sport. Four-time RS:X/Mistral One-Design sailor Jessica Crisp finished the Games in fifth place and is now a coach in NSW. Three-time Olympian Finn sailor Anthony "Knocka" Nossiter finished the Sydney Games in sixth place and continues sailing as a training partner Australian Sailing Team member Jake Lilley. Team coach Michael Fletcher continues to coach NSW Youth squad.

Each athlete shared how an incredible it was to experience an Olympics on home waters and credited it with inspiring the next generation of Australian sailors. "It was our home club and most of the match racing was conducted on the same water where we learnt to sail," says Edwards. "The ferries on the harbour were our natural enemies, but now they were healing and heaving with screaming fans. It was all quite surreal."

"I think we all realise that we were extremely fortunate to be able to represent Australia at a home Games. It goes without saying that we know we were part of a special team."

"Out on the water a lot of my Laser sailing friends were manning the power boats and helping the Race Committee set up the course," says Blackburn. "Everywhere I looked there were family and friends watching; there was even a young Tom Slingsby watching from Bradley's Head being inspired for future Olympics."

The impact of our sailing success at the Games has been profound for our sport and has been cited by many of our current champions as what inspired them to compete in sailing at a high level. "The beauty of a home Olympics for Australian sailing was it ignited the dream for the next generation of successful sailors to come along," says Bundock. "People like Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge, Jason Waterhouse, Lisa Darmanin and many generations to come."

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