Road to Rio: Jason Saunders, sailing

By Peter White

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IN SYNCH: Jason Saunders and Gemma Jones competing at a pre-Olympics regatta in Rio last year. Photo/File A_230815sp09bop
IN SYNCH: Jason Saunders and Gemma Jones competing at a pre-Olympics regatta in Rio last year. Photo/File A_230815sp09bop

Road to Rio
Jason Saunders will make history at next month's Rio Olympics.

The 25-year-old from Tauranga and team mate Gemma Jones will sail in the mixed gender multihull event Nacra 17, one of two sailing events making their Olympic debut in Rio.

Saunders and Jones, from the Murrays Bay Sailing Club in Auckland, paired up for a Nacra 17 campaign after its inclusion in the Olympic Games was announced back in 2013.

In 2015 they achieved some impressive results with a 4th place at the Nacra World Championships and a 5th place at the Olympic Test event in Rio.

Adjusting from 470 class yachts to multihull Nacra 17s was a difficult assignment for Saunders.

"It was a big change," he said.

"I didn't know anything about the catamaran before I changed into that so it has taken a few years to get right on top of it and learn what it is all about.

"The biggest thing for me is it is a lot faster and the tactical side of things actually changes a lot as well.

"You get into situations a lot faster and communication is really important as you have to make split second decisions.

"It is hard to manoeuvre in a catamaran so you make less decisions but they are more important and they happen faster. It is really, really challenging which is good fun."

Saunders has also had to get used to being part of a mixed gender team.

"Sailing with Gemma has been really good as well and a big learning curve for both of us.

"When you start with anyone new, boy or girl, it brings its challenges. We have learned a lot about how to sail with each other over the past few years and what each other likes.

"We have enjoyed the ride so far. We are hoping to have a really good event in Rio."

While not the obvious gold medal favourites that Peter Burling and Blair Tuke are, Saunders and Jones are fine medal prospects in their own right.

"We have got a chance (of medalling), that's for sure," Saunders said.

"We really like sailing in Rio.

"We have done quite a few training events and test events there over the last couple of years.

"We have gone really well there and have good feelings about it which is really cool.

"I think the smaller fleets of the Olympics really suit us. We like that style of racing.

"We are pretty happy with how our preparation has been going the last month or two and are hopeful of getting a good result and performing to our best."

Rio will be Saunders' second Olympic Games.

In London in 2012 he represented New Zealand in the Men's 470 class sailing with Paul Snow-Hansen. There they placed 5th overall.

"The whole scene at the Olympics with all the media and everything does make it a different event in terms of all the stuff on the land I suppose.

"The biggest thing I took out of it was that when you get out on the water it is all still the same, you are still racing the same guys and still have to do the same job on the water.

"So even though it looks different from the outside if you have done the work you should be able to go out there and perform.

"Just ignore the rest of the stuff. Embrace it a little bit but remember it is just another event."

Saunders is one of four Olympians competing in Rio along with Burling, Sam Meech and Molly Meech from the Tauranga Yacht and power Boat Club.

They all grew up together and learned to sail on the Tauranga Harbour.

"Sam, Molly and me actually lived together for four or five years so that was pretty cool for us as a flat to all be going to the Olympics," Saunders said.

"Tauranga Yacht Club is an amazing place to grow up in and go sailing.

"They have always been very supportive of us. We had an awesome upbringing down there at the club.

"Competition was always pretty fierce between all of us that are going in the junior classes and it is cool that we are still battling away in the senior classes.

"It is an opportunity to go and represent our country at the Olympics together."

There is a strong Tauranga Boys' College connection in the sailing team with Burling, Saunders and Meech at school together with Black Caps captain Kane Williamson.

"We were all in the same classes so that was a pretty cool year," Saunders said.

"What Kane has done in cricket has been awesome and we follow that pretty closely.

"Peter has had an amazing four years in the sailing scene and me and Sam have been competing as well.

"It is great to see our year group at Tauranga Boys' is doing awesome things as well.

"The school supports sport a lot. It was a great place to be growing up as well and competing in a sport.

"It is pretty inspiring to see your old classmates doing so well and it makes you want to keep going as well."

Jason Saunders
Age: 25
Mixed multihull - Nacra 17
Hometown: Tauranga
School: Tauranga Boys' College
Club: Tauranga Yacht & Powerboat Club
Career highs:
2015 Olympic Test Event Rio - 5th
2015 Nacra 17 World Championships - 4th
2014 Nacra 17 World Championship - 5th
2014 Olympic Test Event, Rio - 6th
2013 NZL Sailing Team with ETNZ - Red Bull Youth America's Cup Champions
2012 Olympic Games, London - Men's 470 class - 5th

- Bay of Plenty Times

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