Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Rio Olympics 2016: Burling and Tuke lead great day on the water

New Zealand's Peter Burling, left, and Blair Tuke celebrate after winning the 49er men gold medal. photo / AP
New Zealand's Peter Burling, left, and Blair Tuke celebrate after winning the 49er men gold medal. photo / AP

Alex Maloney and Molly Meech have completed a brilliant day on the water for New Zealand sailors, taking out the silver in the 49erFX class after a tight tussle gold.

It was New Zealand's third medal of the day, and fourth of the regatta, after the 49er pairing of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke confirmed their status as Olympic champions, while Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie completed a stunning recovery to take out silver in the women's 470 class.

Earlier in the week Sam Meech, Molly's older brother, took out bronze in the Laser class.
Maloney and Meech were facing the toughest scenario of all the crews to come away with a medal, with just one point separating the top four crews.

The Kiwi were ranked in fourth heading into the medal race, one point off the Spanish, Brazilian and Danish crews in first equal.

It meant the race for medals was wide open, with the finishing order in the medal race set to determine podium spots.

Maloney and Meech made the early moves, sitting at the front of the fleet from the outset, but they faced strong pressure from behind from the local pairing of Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze, who were well in tune with the conditions on Guanabara Bay.

By the fifth mark rounding, the Brazilians had closed the gap to just six seconds, setting up a tense finish as the two boats took off on separate sides of the course. When they converged again, Grael and Kunze had stolen the lead, powering ahead to take out the gold, with the Kiwis finishing in second just two seconds behind.

Earlier today Burling and Tuke have confirmed their gold medal in the 49er class, taking out the Olympic regatta by an incredible 43 points after winning the medal race.

The four-time world champions already had the gold locked in heading into the medal race, after extending their lead in the series out to an unassailable 34-point advantage in Wednesday's final qualifying races.

Despite only needing to turn up and complete a victory lap around Guanabara Bay to confirm their Olympic medal, Burling and Tuke were not happy just to take part in the race. They wanted to show why they are unbeaten in every major regatta for the past four years.

The brilliant Kiwi pair dominated the fleet, leading the race from the start to finish to take out the regatta over Australian pair Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, who beat the Kiwis for gold in London four years ago.

Aleh and Powrie's rollercoaster Olympic regatta also finished on a high this morning, with the Kiwi pair completing a remarkable recovery to take out silver in the women's 470.
Although they were ranked in second heading into the medal race, the Kiwis had a tough battle on their hands to secure a podium finish.

The British crew of Saskia Clark and Hannah Mills had the gold medal stitched up ahead of the deciding race, holding an unassailable 20-point lead. But with four points separating second through fifth position, any one of four crews were a chance of taking out the minor medals.

Team Jolly looked as if they might have to settle for bronze at the mid-point in the race, with the US pairing of Annie Haegar and Briana Provancha, who were just one point behind the Kiwis heading into the race, dominating early on.

But Aleh and Powrie played the conditions perfectly to roll over the top of the US, who ended up missing the medals altogether as reigning world champions Camille Lecointre and Helene de France of France taking out the bronze.

"I saw [the US team] were ahead, but we didn't panic. I knew we had a long race and there would be opportunities if we stayed patient. I didn't expect it to be so close," said Aleh.
That the Kiwi pair were even in a position to win a medal was remarkable.

Two disqualifications in their 10-race series saw the defending Olympic champions languishing back in seventh heading into the penultimate day of racing, effectively ending their chances of becoming the first New Zealand sailors to win back-to-back gold following their victory in London four years ago.

Despite the massive setbacks, the tenacious pair, known as Team Jolly, managed to fight their way back into silver position heading into the medal race after picking up two firsts and a third on the final day of qualifying races.

It brought Aleh and Powrie's record for the regatta up to four wins from 10 races. By way of comparison, the all-conquering Burling and Tuke, won three of their 12 fleet races.
Having completing what has been described as New Zealand's greatest comeback performance of the Games, Aleh said today's medal feels more special than their gold medal in London.

"This is right up there for us, it feels so much better than London because we fought so hard to get this medal," she said.

Powrie said it was a huge challenge for the the pair to stay in the game mentally following the setbacks they endured earlier in the regatta.

"Not much has gone our way so all we could do was keep battling, keep fighting," she said.

"It's been a rollercoaster for sure, it was not the ideal situation and how we wanted the week to pan out and all we could do was hang in there."

In the men's 470, Paul Snow-Hansen and Daniel Willcox wrapped up their campaign with a sixth in today's medal race, but it was not enough to improve their 10th place ranking.

- NZ Herald

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