Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: Devising the winning plan

David Slyfield has worked with Sarah Walker and other New Zealand medallists.
David Slyfield has worked with Sarah Walker and other New Zealand medallists.

New Zealand can thank a self-confessed sports groupie for much of our medal success at the London Olympics.

Meet the alchemist. David Slyfield has not been at the London Olympic Games - he prefers putting the kettle on in the early hours - but has played a significant hand securing precious metal for the final four Kiwi medallists.

As a contracted performance planner with High Performance Sport New Zealand, Slyfield has worked with the campaigns of women's 470 gold medallists Jo Aleh and Olivia "Polly" Powrie, women's BMX silver medallist Sarah Walker, men's 49er silver medallists Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, and women's K1 200m gold medal kayaker Lisa Carrington.

Slyfield has helped those athletes devise plans to succeed. He has also been a support team member in the Olympic gold medal-winning campaigns of Rob Waddell, Sarah Ulmer, Hamish Carter and Tom Ashley.

Of Carrington's successful campaign, he said: "I talked to her last night when she was getting a massage.

She was happy and able to laugh. I think it was a huge advantage having that K2 500 race [with Erin Taylor] before, rather than her solely being on the start line under immense pressure having barely seen the course.

"I'm just a guy who hangs out with them, a sports groupie if you like. I help link them to key people and stick to a plan. They tell me my job description. I take a helicopter approach."

Slyfield is also in the unique position of having spent more than 30 hours interviewing each of the 14 New Zealand Olympic gold medallists from 1988 onwards as part of a Prime Minister's scholarship.

The majority of 2012 Kiwi Olympians, coaches and support staff have attended presentations where Slyfield has fed back the advice of their gold medal-winning predecessors.

His study revealed that on average, gold medallists committed nine years to the task. Five were first-time Olympians and two were third-time Olympians. None were bolters - all had a history of performing on the world stage.

The latest on that list are Aleh, Powrie and Carrington. It was Aleh's second Olympics and Powrie's debut.

"Jo was burning as a result of her Beijing experience [she came seventh in the Laser Radial]. She didn't achieve what she thought she was capable of, so we went about bulletproofing this campaign. We recognised if they were to be the best, they had to prepare better mentally.

"I got them to have lunch with people like Hamish Carter and asked them afterwards, 'did they feel he was an untouchable icon or that they could reach the same place?' Without being arrogant, they felt it was the latter.

"They had learnt to win before [they won both Sail for Gold regattas at the venue] but had never won a world championship. There were gaps in those campaigns. One example was a regatta when they lost to the Dutch. They had to match race them in the final [while simultaneously being in a fleet race] and they hadn't done enough practice."

Slyfield says Walker's silver brings particular satisfaction given her patchy build-up.

'She's had consistent 'podium performances throughout her career. However, Sarah had a glaring gap this year; she hadn't completed an event until the world championships because of a shoulder injury.

"People are unaware how close she came to missing the Olympics but she drew on her experience and delivered in the final. She's done immense work on the mental side with psychologist Dave Galbraith. It's a real scrap, the BMX, not like swimming where you have a clear 50m lane. It was a positive sign each time each time she smiled and waved at the camera during the competition."

Slyfield says Burling and Tuke will have opportunities beyond Olympic sailing as a result of thorough preparation.

"When the Louis Vuitton [pre-America's Cup] series was on in Auckland a few years back, they spoke to seven world champions or podium performers from the past. For the price of a coffee, they accelerated their knowledge.

"I would say 90 per cent of these medals are won before the event, 10 per cent is actually performing under pressure. That was a top performance to break sailing's 20-year medal drought outside of boardsailing. A lot of fine sailors have been to the Olympics in the meantime."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 02 Sep 2014 17:27:48 Processing Time: 572ms