What did Sail for Gold 2012 reveal as we head towards the Games?
Sail for Gold 2012 was a no-brainer, as they say, for any team that will be competing at the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth. Most had already made their selections, while some were using the event to see just how their sailors would behave in the Olympic venue and under increased pressure.
The racing took place over a wide variety of conditions from drifting to survival, so what do we know about the various teams and sailors in the build up to the main event?
Having been on the water for the entire week where I helped to bring back live commentary of the racing, here’s my take, (in no particular order), on what Sail for Gold revealed.
Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen remain the team to beat, current world champions and winning Sail for Gold is a good indication but their consistent performance across the weather conditions and their confident style must surely make them the favourites.
From a British perspective it’s easy to see why it took so long to choose the UK representatives. Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes have matured significantly since Beijing 2008 and clearly love the heavier weather. They demonstrated that they are well capable of beating the best, but they also demonstrated that they can trip up enough to ruin their chances. Gear failure let them down at SFG and rumour has it that it was the kind of breakdown that should have been avoided.
Dutch sailor Marit Boumeester has set the standard for several years now, so much so that it has been difficult to see who could really challenge her. But after SFG, several names proved themselves capable.
China’s Lijia Xu provided a string of solid results through the week but tripped up in the medal race when she hit the windward mark.
Ireland’s Annalise Murphy demonstrated for the second year running how much she likes the breezy conditions, as did Britain’s Alison Young who won the event.
Young has been on a steady climb through the rankings for some time now and looks capable of peaking at just the right time. Under normal circumstances, as an Olympic first timer, she will have her work cut out to deliver a medal at the Games, but Young is a quiet, shy and fiercely determined character who says and reveals little – sound familiar?!
Finland’s Sari Multala and Belgium’s Evi Van Acker are also frequently in the front running and help to make this a particularly competitive fleet for 2012.
Australia’s Tom Slingsby is still the man to beat. A solid performer who, if he isn’t leading, is always in the frame and ready to pounce with a couple pf killer races when it counts.
His main competition should be Paul Goodison but the British sailor has struggled this season and continued to do so during SFG and was forced to carry a couple of big figure results which held him back.
Germany’s Philip Buhl is another to watch out for after an impressive performance at SFG this year.
Matthew Belcher and Malcolm Page (AUS) have often demonstrated to the rest of the fleet how it should be done. But at this event the gap between them and the rest of the fleet was smaller and they went into the medal race just three points ahead of Luke Patience and Stuart BIthell (GBR). The Brits, who are a relative recent pairing, have shown themselves capable of both taking a top result and bombing out. But at SFG they held their nerve and took Silver. Few doubt that they have the talent, but how will they cope under the extra pressure of their first Olympics?
In winning the worlds a few weeks ago, Britain’s Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark have demonstrated that they can both deliver and peak at the right time. A few problems at Sail for Gold during the week and a broken tiller extension at the start of the medal race left them with Bronze rather than the top medal that many expected of them. Nevertheless, the fact that they hauled their way back into the frame from some disappointing results in the series bodes well for the Games.
There are a number of teams in this fleet that could deliver on the day and at SFG the Kiwi sailors Jo Aleh and Olivia Polly Powrie added their names to the list of serious contenders along with USA sailors Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan.
The number of world champions in this fleet says it all when it comes to close competition, but the fact that the Irish team, Peter O’Leary and David Burrows won SFG for the second time in a row illustrates how well they understand Weymouth.
Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada (BRA) have been the team to beat for much of the season.
Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson demonstrated once again that they have what it takes to deliver the top result but also tripped up at a crucial moment when they only had a point margin going into the medal race. Given the state of the competition in this class and the previous evidence from Beijing, this could easily be the scenario come the Games.
Juian Bontemps (FRA) delivered a string of top results at SFG and looked set to take Gold until he strangled his chances in the medal race after some strange moves. Dutchman Dorian van Russelberge was quick to seize the opportunity and win the event with Britain’s Nick Dempsey holding onto Bronze.
If nothing else this fleet demonstrated how odd behaviour under pressure on the notoriously shifty medal race course under the Nothe can see a swift change in fortunes.
Poland’s Zofia Noceti-Klepacka not only stormed away with the lead throughout the week, discarding a 4th, but seemed to be reveling in the conditions and the location. Barely putting a foot wrong all week, she has to be one of the strongest contenders for the Games.
Britain’s Bryony Shaw was hampered by gear failure and an OCS during the week, examples of ‘controlables’ that need to be dealt with before the main event. Clearly capable of getting onto the podium Shaw needs to eliminate the few big figure results that seem to drag her down.
Giles Scott has had a year to come to terms with the bitter disappointment of not being selected as Britain’s Olympic representative. The frustration appears to have driven him even harder to prove that he is Olympic Gold material and his performances seem to be getting even better with time.
But it is Ainslie who has the place and his emphatic win at the Finn Gold Cup, albeit in the absence of Scott, made a clear statement that he is still the favourite for the top slot at the Games.
Many will be surprised to see him falter at SFG (if that’s what you can call a silver medal) and plenty were shocked to see him capsize and finish last in the medal race. But this could actually help Ainslie’s campaign as it reminds us and the mainstream media that seems hell bent on piling on the pressure, that nothing is a dead cert. The success that so many want to see, is far from a done deal.
In Scott, Ainslie also has the best training partner in the world for his final run up to the Games, plus three other sailors who can deliver top to order.
Olivia Price, Nina Curtis, Lucinda Whittly (AUS) pulled the rug out from all their competitors in the match racing at SFG as they made an early bid for success displacing Anna Tunnicliffe (USA) and Claire Leroy’s (FRA) teams among others. The competition is clearly hotting up in this class and for the Brits skippered by former world champion Lucy Macgregor, SFG was a very disappointing event.
The world championships takes place shortly, which could be an opportunity for those more used to being at the front to re-boot their campaigns and recover their previous form.
This is the last time we’ll see match racing in the Games, for the time being at least and it promises to be a tricky to follow come the Games as it was during SFG. The big advantage however form a spectators point of view, is that match racing is like snooker on TV, no matter when you look it’s always on.
A big turn around for the Brits with medals in all three of the classes. Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell stamped their authority on the Skud 18 class to take gold with ease. In the Sonar John Robertson, Hannah Stodel, Steve Thomas proved once again that they like the heavy weather having succeeded in Hyeres earlier in the season in similarly heavy going conditions.
Helena Lucas has discovered that she has precisely what it takes to get into the frame finishing on equal points with the king of the 2.4mR Thierry Schmitter and only losing out on the Gold through a tie break. This is a huge boost for Lucas and indeed the entire GBR Paralympic team who, despite good early results in 2008, came away from the Paralympic Games empty handed.
Food for thought
Having looked closely at individual performances it is however important to note that for some, SFG represented an opportunity to try out different ideas in the heat of proper Olympic competition without risking the medal that counts. As a result there were some manoeuvres, tactics and set ups that may have hampered individual performances. Know that something might not work is as useful as discovering that it really is the answer.
Not everything we saw last week will translate across to the Games.
But if there was one tactic that stuck in my mind during the week it was the dramatic port tack shot gun start that was favoured/practiced by Morrison and Rhodes among others.
Loitering at the pin end on port takes bottle and skill in a boat that is ludicrously unstable at rest. If you are going to make the manoeuvre work and fire out to the right hand side of the course at speed, on port, you need to be close enough to aim at the transoms of your competition at full speed with no rights.
Great to watch, especially with the added tension of the Games.
Can’t wait to see if it’s used for real.