Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Yachting: Tailwind driving duo's Rio preparations

Five double-handed crews named in the opening Olympic sailing selections, Men's 470 crew (L-R) Daniel Willcox and Paul Snow-Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Five double-handed crews named in the opening Olympic sailing selections, Men's 470 crew (L-R) Daniel Willcox and Paul Snow-Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Confronted by a cluster of water weed the size of a small island floating across the race course at the 470 world championships in Argentina, Kiwi sailors Paul Snow-Hansen and Daniel Willcox merely shrugged their shoulders.

Looking around the dinghy park they could see other teams getting flustered by the rogue flora that had mysteriously appeared at the San Isidro venue, forcing officials to reset the course each race. But the stress coming from the other boats only calmed the New Zealand pair.

"We like to see ourselves as being pretty bullet-proof if things come up," says Willcox. "We could see a lot of other guys getting in a flap about it and getting distracted from the job at hand and we knew we weren't going to let it get the best of us."

That ability to cope with unexpected challenges saw Snow-Hansen and Willcox pull off their best world championship result since they teamed up in 2013, picking up silver at last month's regatta in Argentina.

The result also confirmed the pair's place in the Olympic team, with Snow-Hansen and Willcox among five New Zealand crews named for the Rio Games last week.

In some ways the men's 470 duo sneaked up on the Yachting New Zealand selectors almost as much as they did their competitors. They have achieved some strong results over the past couple of years, including bronze at an Olympic test event in Rio in 2014, but their rapid improvement as they enter crunch time in the Olympic cycle came as a pleasant surprise.

Snow-Hansen said achieving their first world championship podium finish last month has given them greater confidence in their campaign, particularly as they approach an Olympic regatta that is set to test the athletes in myriad ways.

Much has been made of the very real concerns over the level of pollution in Rio's Guanabara Bay. From debris floating in the water to the unseen contaminants that lurk within, it is the man-made hazards the sailors will encounter that have dominated the headlines in the lead-up.

But Mother Nature could also pose plenty of problems for the fleet. The unusual topography in Rio makes racing in the inner harbour tricky, with sailors having to contend with shifty winds and swirling currents. On the outer harbour race courses, the choppy sea state can make life tough.

Yet when they consider the challenges Rio will offer, Willcox and Snow-Hansen seem more excited than apprehensive.

"I think knowing you've got the potential to lay down a good result in all conditions is a big part of it. It's such a variable sport that you can't really get too locked in with needing things to line up exactly how you want them, you have to be flexible and have all the different cards to play when they're presented," says Snow-Hansen.

"It will take a very all-rounded team to succeed there and we pride ourselves on that," Willcox adds.

Rio will be Snow-Hansen's second Olympic campaign, having teamed up with Jason Saunders in the 470 in London. Both just 21 at the time, the young pair exceeded expectations, finishing a creditable fifth after beating several more experienced crews.

But having come so close to a podium finish brought with it nagging questions for Snow-Hansen.

"It's kind of mixed feelings because fifth was a great result, and I still see it that way. But having worn the third-place jersey for a day, we got a taste of being in a podium position. We were so close and it definitely made you think 'what if?' and 'what could we have done to turn it into a medal'."

With Rio typically more of a light-air venue, the new Olympic cycle brought about a rejig in crews. Saunders linked up with Gemma Jones in the Nacra - a mixed multihull class that will be introduced to the Olympic programme for the first time in Rio - while Snow-Hansen welcomed his long-time friend into the 470.

Snow-Hansen and Willcox, who both grew up on the North Shore, met on the soccer field when they were just 10 years old, and were soon facing off on the water as well.
"We grew up racing against each other as kids, we went to three optimist worlds together - one of those was with [49er world champion and Team New Zealand helmsman] Pete Burling as well when we were all little grommets," said Snow-Hansen.

"We knew each other really well and after London it was just a natural thing that just happened."

Willcox certainly had the pedigree in the sport. His father, Hamish, is a three-time world champion in the 470, and now coaches the rock stars of New Zealand sailing, Burling and Blair Tuke in the 49er class.

Hamish coached his son and Snow-Hansen early on in their campaign, but the pair later moved on to Nathan Handley so they could align themselves more closely with the women's 470 crew and Olympic gold medallists Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie.

"Hamish coached Paul and I in 2013 and really got our campaign off on the right foot. He's been around both of us a lot - he's an amazing coach and has our best interests at heart so he's good to have around," said Willcox.

While his father's sailing record is a lot to live up to, Willcox has already achieved something Hamish didn't in the 470 class by being selected for this year's Games. Despite dominating the class for a period in the early 80s, Hamish never attended an Olympics.

But Willcox is still not the first Olympian in his family. His younger sister Anna is a top skier, and represented New Zealand in the freeski slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"That was pretty cool for the family. For Anna to qualify for the Winter Olympics - we were all so proud of her, it was really cool.

"It was also really motivating for me as well, it inspired me to keep my head down and keep working hard for Rio."

Now they are confirmed for the Games, Snow-Hansen and Willcox's focus has turned to learning as much as they can about the Olympic venue. The pair, with the other New Zealand crews named in the team, will travel to Rio at least twice before the Olympics to familiarise themselves with the conditions there.

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