"Failures are where the good stuff happens," says helmsman Luke Patience. He and Stuart Bithell have learnt the hard way that an Olympic campaign is a tough challenge. Matthew Sheahan spoke to the newly selected 470 duo
Although Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell may not have a Plan B, their chiselled youthful looks, quick-fire banter and their strong Scottish and Yorkshire accents could easily provide them with second careers as presenters for Blue Peter. They also exude the requisite energetic enthusiasm, but their characters and physical proportions are worlds apart. Precisely what you need in a single-trapeze 470.
Patience, the 5ft 5in helmsman, admits to being a bit excitable and relies heavily on his 6ft 2in crew Bithell to calm him down.
“I’m a bit of a fired-up Jack Russell,” he admits with a grin.
Bithell on the other hand freely confesses that he can be too laidback. Certainly, when he talks about the future and his plans should the pair’s dream of Olympic success not come true, it soon becomes clear that pressure is one thing the long-limbed Yorkshireman does not appear to feel.
Despite being close friends for many years – Patience and Bithell sailed 420s against each other as teenagers – the 470 pairing is a recent and accidental one. Like their female counterparts, Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, Patience and Bithell’s Olympic campaign was born out of former failed campaigns and a sense of deep frustration.
“We both had failed previous campaigns. In 2009, mine had just come to a close and Stuart’s just before,” Patience says. “I was sick of underachieving and getting 15ths at the Worlds and was wondering if it was time to chuck it all in.”
“I was looking into getting a job,” Bithell chips in. “We got talking and started thinking about a Tornado campaign as a last-ditch attempt to get into the Olympics, but then the class was removed from the 2012 Olympics. So instead we thought we’d have a crack at the 470 Worlds in Copenhagen in 2009.”
Three weeks later the pair were standing on the podium with Silver medals around their necks. With no pre-training they could barely believe it themselves, but it set them thinking.
“We literally made the decision to go for the Olympics while standing on the podium in Copenhagen,” Patience says. “If we can do this without training, we thought, think what we could do if we really worked at it.”
More success followed, with a Silver at Sail for Gold in Weymouth, but then came the crash and a series of hard lessons.
“We kicked back, didn’t train too hard and enjoyed ourselves, but we paid for it afterwards in Miami, Palma and Hyères,” Patience continues, outlining the background to a disastrous spell where deep double-figure results were the norm.
“We didn’t have a clear plan, we didn’t set goals and our youth, luck and excitement were running out. We hired a coach and started to develop a plan and a programme we have stuck to ever since.”
But they still weren’t out of the woods. During the penultimate race of the 470 Worlds in 2010 a rudder failure put them out of the last two races when they were leading the field by 20 points.
“It was a guaranteed Silver and a very good chance of a Gold,” Patience says. Instead they finished 8th.
“But that period shaped our campaign to this day,” Bithell says. “We learnt a big lesson and aged about 20 years in four months. If nothing else, we were clear with each other that we had to knuckle down and do it properly or walk away.”
One year later, with the pressure of a highly competitive UK fleet vying for the coveted British Olympic place, the pair demonstrated to the selectors that they were the team to pick. And while they are clearly excited at the prospect, they are in no doubt as to where they have come from.
“Failures are where the good stuff happens,” says Patience. “But Silver medal is the first point of failure.”