Olympics: Hopes high for end to yachting medal drought

By David Leggat

Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie celebrate retaining their crown in the 470 event at Weymouth last week. Photo / Supplied.
Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie celebrate retaining their crown in the 470 event at Weymouth last week. Photo / Supplied.

Women's pair offer good chance of finally earning New Zealand another Olympic gold in sailing.

Given the number of New Zealanders prominent on the world sailing stage, it is surprising that it has been 28 years since yachties won an Olympic gold medal.

Riding the boards is a different story.

Bruce and Barbara Kendall and Tom Ashley, in Beijing four years ago, won Olympic gold. Barbara Kendall has silver and bronze Olympic medals to complete her set, Bruce Kendall and Aaron McIntosh bronzes.

But you need to go back to Los Angeles, 1984, for the last time Olympic sailors stood tallest at a Games.

Russell Coutts won the Finn title that year, as did Rex Sellers and Chris Timms in the Tornado class.

There have been a handful of minor placings since, but nothing for the last four Games.

Might things change in Weymouth in August, where New Zealand will contest nine of the 10 Olympic classes? And if so, who?

Sailing can be fickle, subject as it is to weather conditions. Strange things happen.

At the Sail for Gold regatta on the waters of Weymouth last week, New Zealand finished fourth overall, but managed just one class title when Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie retained their crown in the 470 event.

It doesn't guarantee gold in August, but it does suggest the New Zealanders know their way around the only patch of water that really matters in an Olympic year.

"It's a bit like sailing off Takapuna," said coach Nathan Handley.

"It depends on the weather system around at the time on what you're going to get. We've had a lot of fresh days but also a lot of light airs.

"When the light weather comes into it, more Europeans come into the picture."

So Aleh and Powrie would prefer more wind to less. By Handley's count, when it's windier there are four or five top class crews; double that if it's lighter.

Handley has made a flying visit home but it's back off to England on Tuesday.

The women have a series of practice regattas run by the coaches on the Olympic courses, to which the top 20 crews are invited.

Aleh and Powrie, who won the world 420 champs in 2007 and have dubbed their campaign Team Jolly, finished fourth at the world championships in Barcelona last month, behind British pair Saskia Clarke and Hannah Mills, French and Dutch combinations.

Pressed on the likely rivals, Handley singled out the British women, along with Dutch pair Lisa Westerhof and Lobke Berkhout, who have won two of the last three world titles.

Aleh and Powrie had a poor medal race at the worlds, which proved to be the difference between victory and fourth.

"But at Weymouth they kept their cool, had a really good medal race and that was very good for their confidence."

So how are they tracking 40 days out from the Games, and are they the best of New Zealand's chances to put that 28-year drought to bed?

Handley is understandably cautious and suspects about seven crews will be in the frame for medals, but he likes what he's seeing.

"There's a lot of work to do and sailing's a funny old game. You need a few things to go your way. So much depends on the elements and a bit of luck here and there and not breaking stuff," Handley said.

"But they're in a pretty good head space. The girls are sailing well, we feel the boat is going well, they're fit and healthy.

"They're certainly not over-confident, but we're definitely in the ball park, that's for sure."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 20 Apr 2014 11:14:42 Processing Time: 387ms