Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Making of an Olympian: Peter Burling and Blair Tuke - Win No 28 only one that matters

In a new five-part series, the Herald profiles the New Zealand Olympians vying for gold at Rio 2016. The films by Herald journalist Mike Scott feature exclusive access to top athletes and gets to the heart of what makes an Olympian. The films will be released every Friday throughout July. The first of the series profiles 49er pairing Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke are about the closest you get to a sure thing in sailing.

The pair will head to Rio as overwhelming favourites for gold in the 49er class having been unbeaten since claiming silver at the London Olympics in 2012.

They have notched up 27 wins on the trot - a run of dominance international class manager Ben Remocker says is unprecedented for the sport given the variables the fleets face from race-to-race and event-to-event.

Burling and Tuke win in light air. They win in heavy breeze. They win in shifty conditions. They win after leading start to finish. They win after poor starts. They even win when they turn up late to regattas.

Should they go on to claim Olympic gold, the young pair would have won every regatta of the entire quadrennial.

While they are proud of their record, it's not something Burling and Tuke place a lot of stock in. Because for them, win number 28 is the only one that matters.

"I'd definitely prefer to be in this situation than the other. But for us, the Olympics is the main goal and we're not afraid of trying things at events and putting it on the line. It doesn't bother us too much if we lose an event, as long as we learn as much as we can and go into Rio with our best chance of winning a gold for New Zealand," said Burling, who at 25 will be at his third Olympic Games.

Their position heading into the Rio Games is quite different from that facing them four years ago. As relative newcomers to the high performance skiff class, they were considered outside medal chances for London.

This time Burling and Tuke are the ones being chased.

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It was widely thought that once Australian duo Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, the London gold medallists, turned back to the 49er after focusing on the America's Cup in 2013, Burling and Tuke would struggle to maintain their winning run.

Yet the margins only appear to have grown, with the past two world championships having been decided well before the medal races. With each successive victory over the past four years, the expectation on the brilliant pairing has steadily built. It's not an entirely enviable position to be in - for Burling and Tuke to slip up would be considered a major upset.

But pressure is what the pair thrive on. "When the screws go on we really enjoy that pressure and that challenge of having to pull out a good result when you need one to take out an event," said Burling.

The prodigious young sailing talent was New Zealand's youngest competitor at the Beijing Games, where he and Carl Evans placed 11th in the 470 class.

Post-Beijing, Burling switched from dinghy sailing to the high performance skiff, linking up with Tuke, who was starting to make a name for himself in Tornados.

Those close to the pair will tell you Tuke, who grew up in Kerikeri, has had a mellowing effect on the intensely focused Burling.

"Pete and I come from different backgrounds, we grew up in different parts of New Zealand and things we did when we were younger were different.

"One thing we both have in common is we are really competitive and enjoy learning and getting better. That helps each day we're on the water because we know each other will be trying their hardest to make the boat go faster," said Tuke. "Within that we bring different skillsets to the table and I think that really helps us."

Blair Tuke and Peter Burling. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Blair Tuke and Peter Burling. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Neither of the pair considers what he is doing to be particularly extraordinary. Both will tell you they're just two laid-back young Kiwi blokes getting out on the water doing what they love.

But that self-constructed narrative, while true to a point, undersells the pair.

Besides being gifted sailors, they are clever, self-assured and their campaign is exceptionally well-planned. Along with coach Hamish Willcox and the rest of their support team, Burling and Tuke spend hours a week studying and planning.

Burling is responsible for making sure the boat and the gear is well maintained, Tuke handles the logistics and making sure the boat is in the right part of the world at the right time.

"What's quite unique about the sport of sailing is that it isn't really a strength-related sport - you've got to get to a level of fitness and a level of strength, but when you carry on past that you don't really get a lot of gains. So a lot of the stuff we do is looking for gains in other areas through planning how to do things ideally and trying to out-think people.

"A lot of our sport is about making better decisions than everyone else, from how you set the boat up to what you do out on the race course," said Burling.

"For us that means hours of tuning the boats, learning about the settings and the equipment and the gear.

"Once you actually get on the race course you've got to sail fast, but also in the right direction, so a lot of time goes into thinking about situations and scenarios as to what best to do in those situations for the risk-reward."

Come August 18 the ultimate reward beckons.

Partnership

• Peter Burling attended his first Olympics at 17, pairing up with Carl Evans, who was also 17 at the time, in the 470 class at the Beijing Games

• In 2009 Burling joined forces with Blair Tuke, teaming up in the high performance skiff class

• Despite being relative newcomers to the class, Burling and Tuke claimed silver at the 2012 Olympics

• The pair have not been beaten since the Weymouth regatta, amassing a incredible run of 27 straight wins, including four straight world titles

• Should Burling and Tuke claim gold in Rio, they will have won every regatta they entered over an entire quadrennial - an unprecedented achievement in sailing

- NZ Herald

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