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Sailing: Muppet a jolly good prospect

Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie race a boat named Muppet. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie race a boat named Muppet. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

Many of the world's best women's 470 sailing crews are likely to be chasing a muppet when they contest the London Olympics.

Kermit and Miss Piggy stand down. "Muppet'' is the name Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie have given to the boat they will race off the Weymouth coast.

"We didn't want things to get too intense,'' Powrie, known as Polly, says. "It was a way of keeping our campaign light.''

"The name reflects our nature for making stuff-ups, so we embraced it,'' Aleh chuckles.
Don't be deceived by Muppet or the Team Jolly Racing (Jo + Polly) brand. The duo have shown a clinical streak to win or place at numerous major regattas since forming full-time in 2009.

They shape as one of New Zealand's strongest contenders to eradicate a 20-year Olympic keelboat medal drought. Leslie Egnot and Jan Shearer are New Zealand's only previous 470 Olympic medallists taking silver at Barcelona.

Aleh and Powrie have won the last two Sail for Gold regattas at the Olympic venue. They finished third behind Spain and Britain at the world championships (for all classes) in Perth last December and fourth at the specific 470 class world championships off Barcelona in May behind the Brits, Dutch and French. That result came despite Aleh faceplanting off her bike in the middle of the regatta; a day before her 26th birthday. The result saw her take the course doing a passing imitation for an Egyptian mummy.

The pair are involved in practice regattas to get more experience on the Olympic courses.

Aleh and Powrie (24) have years of pedigree. They won the world 420 world championships when matched for the first time in 2007. Aleh went on to finish seventh in the single-handed Laser Radial at the Beijing Olympics.

As a nine-year-old she was converted to sailing after being inspired by New Zealand's 1995 America's Cup win while Powrie comes from a strong sailing family.

Aleh controls the tiller to steer the course while Powrie has a more physical role controlling the sails. It often sees her extend horizontally from the boat to maximise their wind.

"We do a lot of cardio fitness for endurance because generally their are two races a day and the Olympic campaign lasts nine days [August 2-10],'' Powrie says. "There's also an emphasis on strength because you've got to stay agile jumping around. I injured my back earlier this year and I had to work hard to get it sorted. You need strong core muscles to protect your back given the random loads it can be forced to withstand.''

Fitness preparation helps gain medals but it is worthless without technological investment. High Performance Sport New Zealand has invested $11.3 million in yachting over this Olympic cycle.

Aleh and Powrie also earn performance enhance grants by virtue of their world championship medal in December. The duo have used three boats in this campaign - one in New Zealand, one offshore and Muppet has been built specifically for the Olympics. Hulls cost around $18,000; add sail and rigging costs.

"Initially we thought we could get away with one boat,'' Aleh says. "But it quickly became clear we couldn't risk going without backup.''
Powrie says they get looked after.

"The best thing is using Mackay boat builders on the North Shore. We were able to go to the factory and put specific technical touches into the design.''

The duo have sought sponsorship through SportConnect and there have been examples of Kiwi ingenuity, like their travel plans to the May world championships. Aleh tweeted that they flew "Kiwi-style business class''. Rather than turning left on entry to the plane, they sniffed out a couple of empty rows of seats.

Another key to their campaign has been the measured approach of coach and former Olympian Nathan Handley. He manages much of the logistics like storage, travel and weather briefings.

"He's the third member of the team,'' Aleh says. "He's held us together since we started and keeps us ticking over in the toughest situations.''
The Team Jolly website indicates Handley's wet-weather gear was also useful during five hours of rain unloading seven boats and gear on their March arrival in Europe.

- Herald on Sunday

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