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It's upon us

by John Curnow, Sail-World.com AUS Editor 2 Jul 10:00 BST
Olympic rings - 2012 Olympic Sailing Regatta, Weymouth © Richard Gladwell

Paris 2024 happens this month. Little wonder it seems like it has come back around quickly, when this current quadrennial actually started in 2021. Still. Is what it is... 12 sailors comprise the Australian Olympic Sailing Team. Three are 'old hands' at the biggest show on earth, two have medals to prove it, and the other nine are debutants.

Opening with the closing, we wish them all the very best for their respective events from July 28 to August 8. You can get all the necessary information as it unfolds from Sail-World, of course, but also here.

The team is thus:

  • Matt Wearn OAM - ILCA 7
  • Zoe Thomson - ILCA6
  • Grae Morris - iQFOiL
  • Breiana Whitehead - Formula Kite
  • Oliva Price and Evie Haseldine - 49erFX
  • Jim Colley and Shaun Connor - 49er
  • Brin Liddell and Rhiannan Brown - Nacra 17
  • Nia Jerwood and Conor Nicholas - 470
Buried in all of that are the incredible stories of determination, passion, and drive, no matter whether they are 'seasoned', or 'green' as a hand of new bananas. Watching from quite close, and also afar, really has been a true delight that I am very thankful for, and their personalities are as interesting as their journeys to get here. No matter their results, or how tired they were at the end of the day, their responses to questions made for great reading, and also showed just how much the mental game played into all they have done, and continue to do.

Time then to cue a chat with Australian Sailing Team Technical Director, Michael Blackburn, who is no stranger to it all, no matter whether that is hand around the tiller itself, or on the throttle of the coaching RIB.

As a way of describing them all, Blackburn reflected on the incredible drive and the enthusiasm Zoe Thomson has for the whole programme. "She talks about it by describing how this sport has really got its hooks in her, and in turn this really gets your attention. I think that's a key element of being someone really good in the sport is that there's some sort of obsession with it", said Blackburn who is very much qualified to talk on the subjects of drive, enthusiasm, passion, and obsession.

"It's something you see in the top performers over time. A coach can do a certain amount with them, and they do need to put in the extra discretionary effort, so to speak, as well as being out on the water, but it's also a lot of time off the water thinking about it and honestly wondering how to go a bit faster each day", said Blackburn relative to the all-important mental game. "We're certainly putting a lot of effort into it."

The course at Marseille can offer light, fluffy and benign days, and then of course the Mistral, Sirocco, or even Bora can blow in. The regatta is very spread out, and some classes will have finished before others even start. The you have the added hype of the 'Big O', all the family and friends who have come to watch, and so yes, it is different, if nothing else.

"You'll see racing in a whole lot of different conditions, depending on the class. And I think we can be assured that there'll be some good variety over that time from the end of the Mistral, to the wider seabreeze, and that sort of stuff. It should be quite interesting that way.

"It's a long regatta with events starting and finishing in a very staggered way. The iQFOiL have their marathon as the first race of the Games on July 28. The Women are first up, and then the Men start an hour later (Grae Morris for Team AUS). On the same day both skiff classes commence, as well. It's elongated for the support staff, but the athletes have the usual five to six days of competition. The Kite Foil, Nacra 17 and 470 all start in the second week, for instance. Managing stress and the emotional state of play will be crucial."

The so called 'newbies' will have plenty of experience surrounding them, with an impressive 47 Olympics to draw upon from fellow athletes, coaches, and staff. "Over the past few months we've been gradually drip-feeding experiences, stories, tales, and elements of performing at the Games that work well to the scene. We're just trying to get them gradually familiar with what can happen, what can go wrong, and what the major pitfalls could be during the Games."

No matter what occurs though, you still have to get it right on the track, across different conditions, and the idea has been to get everyone to become an all-rounder. The Australian Sailing Team is known for being methodical, and has playbooks developed for the different locales and weather patterns. This intel has proven to be indispensable. The B&G equipment in the coaches' RIBs has been a critical element of this. So much so that other countries have adopted similar technology standpoints.

Of course, having the information is one thing, knowing how to cut it up and analyse it is another, and to this day the 11 secret herbs and spices deployed by the AST remains a closely guarded, sealed by death warrant secret squirrel business kind of thing. Let's just say it works, and I'd rather stay alive... Thank you. No more to be said.

Note too that phones and Wi-Fi devices are not permitted on the water at the Games, so you have to have the day's playbook etched into your mind before you leave the beach. Instant data is all the coaches are allowed. Recording and transmission not permitted. Game on at the Games, right? Not here to meddle with spiders, you know...

If you're thinking there's a formula, mission, and parameters involved here, you'd be right. The militaristic overtone is well founded. "It's no secret that we've had a bit of an association with the military for previous Olympics, specifically through the SAS and their processes as it pertains to the briefing and debriefing exercises, and the seriousness of it all with respect to how go about their preparation."

"It's stuff that's been instilled in our team and that military precision definitely pays off. We've got a serious bunch of athletes, serious bunch of coaches and staff who simply have the highest standards in play every day. We're not going to put pressure on anybody by over-engaging in discussion about their prospects."

Having said all of that, we know that Matt Wearn is a genius, it will be good to see how the Men's skiff go, as it is one brutal class. Olivia is obviously terribly motivated, having come full circle, so to speak, and Evie appears wise beyond her years. Breiana has shown what she's capable of, time and time again, and Grae has tremendous shoulders, relative to carrying the load and powering on, as it were. Nia and Conor probably just need to flatten out scoresheet, and Brin and Rhiannan are sort of four years ahead of the curve.

So what does Blackburn see? "18 months ago, Brin and Rhiannan had no ambitions or expectations to actually be at the Olympics. They were hoping for 2028. Obviously that's been accelerated, as too have been their performances. Whereas they used to be outside the top 20, now they're knocking on the door of the top 10. That's probably where their expectations lay for these Games. They're still on a rapid growth phase of their careers and their best performance won't be this year, but they're more likely to be in future years. Possibly seeing them in the in the medal race would be a really good thing."

With respect to Nia and Conor, Blackburn said, "I think it's their desire to be more consistent. They've been on a development path which has had its share of ebbs and flows, and that has involved strong learnings, particularly around starting and downwind."

Zoe Thomson could be best described as an F-117 Nighthawk, for she is as brilliant as flying under the radar as she is at getting the job done in a tough, ultra-competitive class dominated by some long standing, super-capable sailors. "She's trying to be the best sailor she can", said Blackburn.

The Quicks (skiffs) is always exciting racing. I think the snakes and ladders was definitely invented with the quicks in mind. You know, you're boiled lollies to chocolates and back to boiled lollies before you even blink. The Phillips brothers put a bullet against their names in the breeze at Tokyo, but highlighting how impenetrable the fleet can be, the overall card did not see them on the podium. Jim and Shaun have sort of shown that they can come out with the gloves on and be the boxing kangaroo, and Olivia and Evie are sort of the quiet achievers.

"I think that the snakes and ladders analogy is just perfect for the 49ers. It's amazing how close the scores can be in a regatta. It means that every point counts. Just finishing one or two points ahead in every race can make a difference between being in the top 10, or securing a coveted top three spot. Jim and Shaun have to hone in on the processes, especially around the starting, and where they get to the attacking point on the corners, where they can perhaps get that one or two boats ahead", stated Blackburn.

Starting in the skiffs can be a bit like getting away from the grid at Mt Panorama. Full tank of fuel, can't stall lest you become a hazard, not slide down the grid riding the clutch the whole way and ruin your chances for longevity later on. Conversely, do well and you have a glamour position at the first turn. "Yes, exactly. Except it's a track that is 20 cars wide, the track undulates and moves, and you don't know how much power you have on the accelerator at any time, because it keeps changing."

"The fine tuning of the sails from moment to moment, and the coordination between skipper and crew are obviously huge parts of it. Jim and Shaun have spent such a long amount of time together to work on that ballet or dance. Olivia and Evie maybe not quite as long, but certainly they talk about it so well in terms of their roles and responsibilities, which is how they keep it so efficient and fast", added Blackburn. "A lot goes into the coordination of the trim and the accuracy of how well they sail." Did someone say Beijing?

"You know, we're delighted we're going and know what we need to do. We've got seasoned heads. We've got new heads. I think we've got a team who are really clear on their expectations for the regatta, no matter where they lie. They're doing really well with the planning and processes they've put in place. They're all just excited and keen to get their uniform, with the coat of arms on, get the 'Australia' across their backs, and just get into it." In the case of the Quicks, that includes flying the Aussie kite. "Yes. Exactly", said an emphatic Blackburn.

OK. There it is. There is so much more on the group's websites for you. Simply use the search field, or 'edition' pull-down menu up the top on the right of the masthead to find it all. Please enjoy your yachting, stay safe, and thanks for tuning into Sail-World.com

John Curnow
Sail-World.com AUS Editor

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