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From Tokyo 2020 to the Rolex Fastnet Race, sailing's superstars shine on the big stage

by Mark Jardine 9 Aug 08:00 PDT
Matt Wearn - Tokyo 2020 Olympics Regatta © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

What a couple of weeks we've had to enjoy sailing at its finest. For many Australians who are under lockdown the footage on TV and streaming services has been the window to see the Olympic coverage, coupled with the extensive reporting from the event on our sites thanks to Richard Gladwell, Andy Rice and Robert Deaves to name a few and the incredible photography of the Sailing Energy team.

The sailing at Tokyo 2020 has been at different times exciting, unpredictable and tense with some awe-inspiring performances by the stand-out sailors at the event.

Awesome Australians

The two Australian Gold Medals were a show of utter domination in the Men's 470 and the Men's Laser / ILCA 7 classes.

The start of Matt Wearn's Laser campaign was a disaster, with a broken vang on the opening day contributing to results of 17th & 28th in the opening races, but after that he took control and rarely finished outside the top 4 in a fleet where consistency was next to impossible.

Australia's dominance in the Laser has been long in the making, going back to Glenn Bourke's three world championship wins from 1988 to 1990, then Michael Blackburn's win in 2006, with a certain Tom Slingsby runner-up in 2006. Blackburn then became coach, helping Slingsby win five World Championships in the class as well as Gold at London 2012, then Tom Burton won Gold at Rio 2016, and it was a bold call by the selectors to go with Matt Wearn for Tokyo 2020 after Tom Burton had won the 2019 Worlds, but boy did he repay the selectors' faith in him.

Mat Belcher and Will Ryan won the Men's 470 at a canter, finishing 22 points clear of the Swedish team in second place, and only needing to compete in the Medal Race to confirm their win. Being the great competitors that they are, they topped a great campaign with a win in the Medal Race anyway. Pure class and it was great to see Mat carrying the flag for Australia in the Tokyo 2020 Closing Ceremony.

Mat Belcher's Olympic medal haul now consists of two Golds and a Silver, after winning at London 2012 when paired with Malcolm Page and finishing as runner-up at Rio 2016 with new crew Will Ryan, and of course his win at Tokyo 2020.

The Australian Sailing Team has had some superb coaches, and Victor Kovalenko is rightly known at Australia's Olympic 'Medal Maker'. The country has dominated the Men's 470 since the Sydney 2000 win of Tom King and Mark Turnbull, and after a blip of not medalling in Athens 2004, Nathan Wilmot and Malcolm Page won in Beijing 2008, followed by Mat Belcher's reign.

The Best of British

Great Britain finished top of the sailing medal table, with three golds, a silver and a bronze, but didn't make things easy for themselves along the way! Dylan Fletcher and Stu Bithell were four points behind the Rio 2016 Gold medal pairing, and of course double America's Cup winners, Pete Burling and Blair Tuke and left it to the final gybe to win by a bowsprit from the German team to take the medal race win and with it the gold medal. It was a heart-in-mouth moment to watch and made for great TV, which of course casts sailing in a great light to non-sailors, unless you're from New Zealand that is...

Next up was Giles Scott. Surely with a 9 point lead 'Mr Reliable' would make easy work of the Medal Race? Thinking he was over the start line early, Scott went back to restart and had to come through the fleet to take fourth in the Medal Race and defend his Olympic title.

Even Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre were made to sweat briefly when the French team protested them for 'team racing' in the Medal Race. Thankfully the protest was quickly dismissed, but it was another nervy moment.

USA medal drought continues

Sadly, the event was another disappointment for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team and the new Executive Director Paul Cayard was quick to address the public with an Open Letter after the Games, in which he wrote:

"...Team USA has a long history of dominance in Olympic Sailing. At Los Angeles 1984, our team won nothing but Gold and Silver in all seven events. In the eight years from '84-'92, we were the dominant sailing team in the world, winning 21 medals. In the last three Olympiads, 2012-2020, Team USA has come away with a total of one bronze. We are no longer the winningest nation in Olympic history. That honor has now gone to Great Britain, who have been the dominant team after a complete makeover of their strategy following Atlanta 1996.

"Many of us in America are dissatisfied by our Olympic sailing trend and want to correct our course. While being in the middle of the pack is not a bad thing, it is just not how Americans think of themselves. Moving up the Olympic pecking order is not going to be easy. No one is going to get out of our way. We need to build a machine that puts teams and athletes in a position where their usual routine will produce a podium result on a regular basis. This is about cultivation, education, preparation and execution on game day. This is about proper process and procedure."

If anyone is going to revive the USA's fortunes in the Olympics it will be Paul Cayard. He knows how to win and can instil the needed confidence and desire within the team.

Canada's top performance was from Sarah Douglas, with the Laser Radial sailor achieving Canada's best individual performance in women's sailing at the Olympic Games.

Coaching and Mentoring

With the obvious influence of coaching on the different sailing teams, I spoke to Ian Walker to find out what is needed to get the best performance from sailors on the big stage:

"The skills you may need to deliver an Olympic performance at an event may be very different to what you may need to coach groups of youth sailors or even to run a squad session. Some coaches offer very technical advice, and some are more like mentors or sport psychologists. By the time you get to the Olympic event, the coach's role will be more about supporting the sailor's needs at that event. This could include preparing tidal and weather information, being their 'eyes out of the boat' and sharing ideas between races, advising on rules, or helping with set up.

"The coach is likely to need an in-depth understanding of what makes their sailor(s) tick and pre-empt what they are likely to do next - in essence to help get the maximum performance out of the sailors.

"Outside of an event like the games, the coach will be working with sailors to try and structure a programme tailored to their performance needs. This is likely to be very different in a technical class to a very physical class. Sailors often look to coaches to help provide answers or 'silver bullets' but, in reality, the coach should be trying to create the environment for the sailors to find their own solutions and to be able to adapt to changing situations. It is particularly important with younger sailors to create a learning environment rather than simply giving them a solution and getting them to practice it over and over.

"Whatever level you sail at you should try to set goals to help focus on the aspects that you think will be critical to performance. As an example, a goal may be to carry out more pre-start drills or tactically to not get out to lay lines too soon. Often these are linked to feedback from previous performances, but they could also be based on observations of other high performing teams. Coaches might input tactical advice such as 'what type of day it is' and what might be the appropriate level of risk to take. Sometimes a coach may simply be trying to reassure a sailor and keep their confidence high - particularly after a bad race."

Wise words from a wise man which can be applied at any level of sporting endeavour.

Hugh Styles, who runs Time on the Water, was coach to Josefin Olsson who took Silver medal in the Women's Laser Radial at Tokyo 2020, and witnessed first-hand the mental pressures that the Olympics can produce:

"Coming into the Olympics there's a big focus on a few key areas. One, the need to be confident and mentally resilient, two to start better than your opposition, and three to have a speed edge in as many conditions as possible.

"That's all easy to say, but how do medal-winning coaches help the athlete achieve this? Through diligent and meticulous preparation in training. Making practice harder than racing will be when battling it out on the water at the games.

"At this Olympics the mental resilience needed to perform for my Swedish athlete was huge. Josefin's first race of the series was her discard, and every other race after that had to count - that's massive mental pressure! She managed it by keeping to the routines, taking it one race at a time, executing the basics really well. Crucially, we really reinforced the fact that there were a lot of races to go and that she had proved in previous regattas that she was one of the best in the fleet, trying to bring her confidence to keep fighting right till the very end of the last race.

"Wow, what a journey we had through the Games as Josefin gradually climbed the overall results table day after day. Going into the Medal Race she was in bronze medal position. She sailed the race of her life in the Medal Race, pulling through the fleet after a safe start to lead at the last windward mark and then hold off the attacking fleet down the final two legs to take the win and secure the Silver medal! Securing her pace in history as the only Swedish female sailor to ever win a single-handed medal at the Olympics."

While any performance at the Olympics ultimately comes down to the sailors themselves, coaches can and do have a huge impact on their performance. Behind the scenes there are many supporting members who contribute to the sailors' success, so we congratulate them all.

Feisty Fastnet

Sunday saw the Rolex Fastnet Race start off Cowes, with the fleet being thrown into 30 knot headwinds all the way to the famous rock. I took a walk to Hurst Castle to photograph the front-runners tackling the narrows as they exited the Solent, and have to admit I was quite happy to be on terra firma. This is one hellish Fastnet for the fleet and there have already been several retirements due to broken masts, torn sails and other failed equipment in the rough conditions.

The leading multihull Maxi Edmond De Rothchild rounded the Rock early this morning and is tearing up the Irish Sea at over 30 knots. In the monohulls there is a tight battle for line honours between the mighty ClubSwan 125 Skorpios and the much smaller IMOCA Apvia. It's going to be interesting to see who gains the upper hand on the downwind leg to Cherbourg in this David vs. Goliath contest.

Good luck and stay safe to all taking part, you have my huge admiration.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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