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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Sailing: Pair in grim fight for Rio

They qualified their classes for Rio but are having to pay their own way to get there, writes Dana Johannsen.

Together, Sara Winther and Natalia Kosinska are going it alone in a bid to get to Rio.
The two Kiwi sailors qualified their respective classes - Winther the Laser Radial and Kosinska the RS:X - for the Olympics in 2014.

But under Yachting New Zealand's tough selection criteria, meeting the qualifying standard is not enough to guarantee a place on the team for the Games. In fact, it's not even enough to guarantee funding.

In a high-performance environment that demands consistent improvement, both were cut from YNZ's centralised programme after the 2015 season, casting them adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

The door is not completely closed on their Olympic hopes. Winther and Kosinska can still earn a nomination if they post strong results at key regattas this year. But they will have to do it without any support - financial, coaching, logistical or otherwise - from the national body.

It's a lonely road, but the pair draw strength from one another.

Winther and Kosinska are not only in the same boat, figuratively speaking, but are also flatmates.

"We have big chats every night and just have a vent, and then we kind of go, 'oh well, let's get on with it'," said Winther.

Kosinska adds: "Sometimes when it gets really tough, you ask yourself why you're doing it and whether it's worth it, and the answer is it's always worth it."

The pair also live with reigning Olympic champion Jo Aleh, one half of the highly successful women's 470 pairing collectively known as Team Jolly - the haves and have nots of New Zealand sailing co-existing under one roof.

Aleh and Polly Powrie were named last week among five New Zealand crews confirmed for Rio. Nominations for the other classes will be finalised in May.

The next month will be crucial for Winther and Kosinska, who are running out of time and opportunities to prove to the selectors they are deserving of an Olympic spot.
Winther flew out for Europe on Friday, bound for a lead-up regatta in Palma, Spain, before she heads to Mexico for the Laser Radial world championships. From there, she will make a call on whether it is worth returning to Europe for the ISAF World Cup in Hyeres or pull the pin on her Olympic dream.

Sara Winther in action during the fourth day of racing at the 2008 Women's Laser Radial Yachting World Championship. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sara Winther in action during the fourth day of racing at the 2008 Women's Laser Radial Yachting World Championship. Photo / Richard Robinson

The 34-year-old is selling her boat in New Zealand to pay for the trip, as well as relying on financial support from her family.

It's a road Winther knows well because all but one year of her Olympic campaign has been entirely self-funded. She qualified for Rio with an 11th placing at

the 2014 world championships in Santander after paying her own way there. The following year, she was included in the NZL sailing team, but a wrist injury derailed most of her 2015 campaign. So she was back out on her own again.

Winther believes she's become very resourceful. She jokes at major events she stalks the top competitors, waiting for them to launch their boat so she can train with them.

"When you are a single-handed class and on your own, it can be quite tough. It's just us making decisions and organising it all. We basically have to beg, borrow and steal to do that."

"Not stealing," Kosinska interjects.

Kosinska, too, has to rely on the generosity of friends to keep her campaign afloat. She has had a couple of trusts help her out with grants and works full-time at a sports massage clinic in Ponsonby with any money left over after living expenses being poured straight back into her sport. But it's the support from her friends that keeps her going.
"The cool thing is you find out it means something for other people as well and they want you to succeed," says Kosinska, who has competed for New Zealand since moving here from Poland seven years ago.

Sara Winther and Natalia Kosinska. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Sara Winther and Natalia Kosinska. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The international windsurfing community has also been generous. Next month, Kosinska will train with a top Brazilian competitor, coached by London Olympian JP Tobin, and a Chinese boardsailor who will be in Auckland for a training block with 2008 Olympic gold medallist Tom Ashley. Tobin qualified New Zealand a spot for Rio in the men's RS:X, but quit the national programme last year, citing a lack of support. Knowing Kosinska's struggles from his own bitter experience, Tobin is helping out the 31-year-old where he can.

Kosinska has also received encouragement from another well-known source. She was ready to pull the pin after a 16th-place finish at last month's world championships in Israel but double Olympic medallist Bruce Kendall, who now coaches in Hong Kong, convinced her to stick at it through to May.

Her final chance to put her case to selectors will be at a World Cup event in Hyeres next month.

"For the first time in more than a year, I will have a training partner, which makes a big difference. With JP helping me as well, I feel like I have a really good build-up and can do well over there," says Kosinska.

Winther has also had to travel to Spain and says, while there is still a sliver of hope she can secure a place on the Olympic team, she must throw everything into it.

"It is hard and I don't tell people it's easy, but I tell people if they want it enough, they will get there."

- Herald on Sunday

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