Olympics: Muppet Show rules for Team Jolly

By Michael Brown in Weymouth

Jo Aleh and Olivia Polly Powrie (NZL) Gold medal winners racing in the 470 Women class on day 6 of the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta. Photo / OnEdition
Jo Aleh and Olivia Polly Powrie (NZL) Gold medal winners racing in the 470 Women class on day 6 of the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta. Photo / OnEdition

Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie couldn't have won Olympic gold without a muppet. This one was 4.7m long and didn't mind getting wet but it would be drawing a long bow to suggest it could star in a television show.

Muppet is what Aleh and Powrie call their 470 boat. It seemed appropriate when they bought it last November but it has more to do with the sailors and their self-deprecating approach than anything else.

"We have made some silly calls in the past at certain regattas, doing dumb stuff," Aleh says. "When we got this boat for the Olympics, we tried to come up with a name and thought Muppet was quite fitting because we sail like muppets occasionally.

"We thought if we called the boat that, hopefully it would limit what we do. Everyone takes it a bit seriously."

Aleh and Powrie can be intense when in race mode and, even before the start of competition, tried to avoid media and keep to themselves. They even had an "anti-family" commitment that prevented their family from seeing them from the time they left New Zealand at the start of July until after racing was concluded, even though some were in Weymouth.

It was just another example of their focus and attention to detail.

Aleh and Powrie talked about wanting to treat the Olympics like any normal regatta, which is a natural reaction, but the Olympics are anything but normal. Successes and mistakes are amplified and the pressure considerable. As much as they tried to brush aside their 18th in the final race before the double points medal race as if it didn't really matter, they were privately annoyed they had heaped pressure on themselves in a winner-take-all medal race with Great Britain.

They saw themselves as muppets.

It also didn't help there was a lay day before the medal race, because it only heightened anxiety and they looked as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders before yesterday's race.

In the end, they needn't have worried. They dominated the final race, despite a poor start, and came home first.

It was New Zealand's first gold medal in a yacht since 1992 and the first in anything other than windsurfing since 1984. On top of that, it was the first gold won by women in a boat.

It's a combination that clearly works and one that is likely to continue. They enjoy each other's company, even though they are quite different individuals (not quite as different as Muppets characters Statler and Waldorf), and spend much of the year together. In many ways, they are like a married couple and often finish each other's sentences. They even have a joint bank account.

"It just makes things easier," says Powrie, explaining they pay for all of their sailing and travel expenses out of the account. "We split everything down the middle. We spend every day together. You have your trying moments like everybody but, as long as you are enjoying it, you get these fantastic highs like winning a gold medal."

Aleh takes up the story: "We're similar but different enough. We're definitely different people. We cover enough of the spectrum that we don't get stuck in the corner but we're similar enough that we can still get on after four years.

"In the 470, in a two-person boat, if you can still get on with the other person after four years you're doing well. A lot of people struggle with that."

The beginnings of their partnership go back some way. Powrie comes from a sailing family but Aleh was inspired to jump in a boat when watching Team New Zealand win the 1995 America's Cup.

She went to learn-to-sail classes in Ponsonby before transferring as an 11-year-old to Kohimarama where Powrie was already a member.

The pair battled it out in Optimists, P-Class boats and Laser Radials before a casual suggestion in 2006 that Aleh, 26, and Powrie, 24, should jump in a boat together for the 420 world championships the following year.

It hadn't occurred to either but Powrie immediately agreed when Aleh approached her. Aleh was in the middle of preparing for the Beijing Olympics, where she finished seventh in the Laser Radial, and tried to juggle training and racing with Powrie in the 420.

"We were absolutely terrible," Aleh says. "The first few times we went out, we were so off the pace but we got on well and we won that worlds in the end. It was actually the most fun I had had that last Olympic cycle. After Beijing was over, I wondered if Polly would sail with me again. Luckily ..."

Muppet also brought about some good fortune. Olympic rules didn't allow them to display Muppet's name throughout the regatta but the sticker was torn off as they wheeled her into the boat park.

As Powrie was at drug testing, Aleh dutifully de-rigged the boat as if it was the most normal thing to do even though she had just become Olympic champion and there were plenty others from the New Zealand team around.

"It's just the normal routine," she says.

"I am finding it quite hard to step away from the boat."

For Team Jolly (Jo and Polly) it was most certainly the Muppet Show in Weymouth.

- Herald on Sunday

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