Andrew Alderson

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

Yachting: Jolly good chance at gold

But getting sponsorship gold behind them has not been plain sailing for the crack 470 crew of Aleh and Powrie

Jo Aleh (left) and Olivia Powrie have won 8 of their last 9 major regattas. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jo Aleh (left) and Olivia Powrie have won 8 of their last 9 major regattas. Photo / Greg Bowker

Hyeres, Palma, Athens, Rio de Janeiro and Santander - it's an itinerary to tempt any bon vivant into grabbing the passport, booking the Learjet and shaking together a martini while taxiing down the runway.

For Olympic and world champions Jo Aleh and Olivia 'Polly' Powrie, it's all in a season's sailing.

The New Zealand women's 470 crew have earned the right to a chunk of Yachting New Zealand's $12 million budget across the Olympic cycle. They're building a clinical legacy, topping the podium in all but one of nine international regattas since June 2012 - they came second in last year's European Championships.

Such form saw Aleh and Powrie become the first New Zealand women honoured as world governing body ISAF's female sailors of the year.

The pair spoke to the Herald on Sunday from Athens ahead of the European Championships, where they were lying fifth after the second day of racing. Their success might be linked to an intuition which sees them finish some of each other's sentences.

Amicable verbal dove-tailing, a by-product of working in tandem full-time since 2009, is a handy attribute when you live, work and travel together for several months a year.

It extends to teamwork on the boat. The Team Jolly (Jo + Polly) brand seems apt.

Aleh controls the tiller while Powrie controls the sails, which often sees her extend from the boat horizontally to maximise the wind.

"We live in each other's pockets overseas which is only natural when you're in a foreign place and don't know anybody else," Powrie, 26, says. "But we keep the dynamic light-hearted enough not to get bogged down."

Aleh, 28, chimes in: "We've also got a really good sports psychologist, Jane Magnusson, who helps us build a plan so we take time out. We know when to leave each other alone."

"We're quite honest about those sorts of things now," Powrie adds. "You don't take it to heart. It's just the reality of the situation. Jane probably knows us better than we know ourselves."

Coach and former Olympian Nathan Handley also takes a role as the silent partner in their success. He manages much of the logistics such as storage, travel and weather briefings while keeping them grounded.

"It's a three-person team as we see it," Aleh says. "He's held us together since we started and keeps us ticking over in the toughest situations. He got us when we were pretty raw and we're lucky to have him."

A core theme to Team Jolly, funnily enough, is a sense of humour.

Before the London Olympics they christened their boat 'Muppet'.

"The name reflects our nature for making stuff-ups," Aleh said at the time.

Subsequent boats elaborated on the theme. They're currently navigating 'Gonzo' in Europe - the boat's blue hull required the search for a blue Jim Henson creation - and the similarly hued 'Grover' will debut in Rio at next month's Olympic test regatta. Gonzo even received a teetotal christening on Lake Garda in Italy last year when a traditional magnum of champagne wasn't handy. "We gave it a splash of water before setting sail," Aleh says.

Olympic glory is yet to make Aleh and Powrie household names in the manner of fellow first-time gold medallists such as Lisa Carrington, Mahe Drysdale, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan.

Aleh and Powrie blame themselves for a lack of profile which saw them struggle for sponsorship. At the London Games, they imposed a media ban but believe they've since reconciled with that component of the job.

"It was a conscious decision taken by us and our support team," Powrie says. "We were inexperienced and didn't believe we could handle the pressure of engaging with the media while trying to win an Olympic medal. That didn't help in the sponsorship arena [afterwards]. Nobody really knew who we were."

The pair never secured deals as 'Iron Maidens' with traditional female gold medallist parade ground Beef + Lamb New Zealand, which currently has kayaking gold medallist Lisa Carrington, multiple Paralympic swimming champion Sophie Pascoe and BMX silver medallist Sarah Walker on its books.

"Maybe we could sponsor tofu and chicken," Aleh laughs. "A lot of athletes came back from the Games with better profiles and got sponsorship a lot sooner. Eventually we met the guys from Apollo Projects in Christchurch who work with a lot of companies. They've been a massive help."

The Aleh-Powrie world appears idyllic. What's not to envy about racing boats off the Athens coast this week, popping out for a Greek salad, visiting the Parthenon and savouring watermelon on your rooftop as the sun dips over the horizon?

However, the pair question their futures beyond the 2016 Olympics in a male-dominated sport. Despite their triumphs, they're hindered by sailing's version of a glass ceiling.

Olympic 49er silver medallists Blair Tuke and Peter Burling were plucked for plum roles in the 'youth' America's Cup crew last year in San Francisco and subsequent Emirates Team New Zealand contracts.

Aleh and Powrie have been surplus to requirements despite being the first Kiwi women to win Olympic gold in a keel boat. Few female professional opportunities are available.

There's a women-only Volvo Ocean Race crew and a handful of vacancies in the international Extreme Sailing Series, otherwise international governing body's ISAF regattas are their limit.

"It's more difficult for women on the bigger sailing scene," Powrie says. "We're just working towards Rio and trying to create opportunities where we can."

"In Olympic yachting, men and women are on a very even plane," Aleh says. "Step outside that into professional sailing and it can be hard for women to get by.

"We're trying to change that mindset and get guys to admit we're as good as them. Sailing's sailing, regardless of gender."

The pair have already made forays into walking the talk, defeating the national men's 470 combination Paul Snow-Hansen and Daniel Willcox at the Oceanbridge Sail Auckland regatta in February.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 24 Oct 2014 20:56:56 Processing Time: 466ms