Yachting: Powrie and Aleh's path to the top

By Carroll du Chateau

Carroll Du Chateau talks to Olympic gold medal duo Olivia Powrie and Jo Aleh about their path to the top and why the America’s Cup does not feature on their horizon — yet

Olivia Powrie (left) and Jo Aleh discovered their personalities and sailing styles clicked together like two bits of Lego. Photo / Greg Bowker
Olivia Powrie (left) and Jo Aleh discovered their personalities and sailing styles clicked together like two bits of Lego. Photo / Greg Bowker

The sight of London Olympic gold medallist, Jo Aleh hopping along in a moon boot alongside sailing mate Olivia "Polly" Powrie, doesn't break the diners' concentration at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Maybe they're used to injuries round here, or the battered fish is particularly good.

They'd take more notice if they knew the full story. Aleh mangled her foot when she and Powrie capsized a 49erFX skiff, one of the boats they are trying out for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

"Actually Polly fished Jo out from under the boat, probably saved her life," explains Powrie's mother, Sarah. "Jo was wedged underneath the hull and her foot was stuck in the foot strap. Polly dived under and got her out."

The foot was badly bruised with two fractures in the metatarsals. A week after we speak, Aleh was finally given doctor's clearance to begin sailing again.

Going unnoticed is not new for this pair. Strangely, while our other gold medallists are stopped in the street for autographs and mobbed by school children, Powrie and Aleh have somehow slid under the radar. Which is surprising, given they are following in the footsteps of some of sailing's most famous names.

Leslie Egnot, who won their event - the two-woman 470s Dinghy class - in 1992, went on to skipper one of the United States' crews in the 1995 America's Cup defenders trials. And Sir Russell Coutts, who won the Finn class gold in 1984, has become one of the most powerful men in world sailing.

But these young women - who, at 24 (Powrie) and 26 still look like teenagers with their shiny, makeup-free faces - are relaxed and unaffected. But they're smart with it. They well know that despite the slick, high-tech graphics, Olympic yachting is not great television. Viewers don't get to see much of the sailors' faces. Nor are the race finishes exactly neck-and-neck.

"Sailing's a tough sport for women," they say when I ask why they haven't been offered free cars from sponsors or asked to be Beef and Lamb ambassadors (like fellow golden girls Sarah Walker and Lisa Carrington). Instead, they pull up their chairs and launch into their stories.

"We're happy. And until now we've tried to stay out of the media," says Powrie.

Even if they haven't been swamped by would-be sponsors, it's been flat-out. "I thought I was going home to go back to uni," says Powrie leaning back and smiling. "But it's been hectic. I had no idea what a gold medal meant for New Zealand. We've been going to schools, doing corporate appearances, going to yacht clubs. It's been crazy.

"At the Kohimarama Yacht Club's Open Day they pulled out our old P-Classes and we had a little race," says Aleh. Neither will own up to who won. "We both made a few mistakes. The amazing thing was the reaction from all the kids ... It's hard to see ourselves like that (role models)."

From their primary school years, Aleh and Powrie battled each other for supremacy in their little Optimist, P-Class, then Starling dinghies - transforming themselves into champions in the process.

Just over a year apart in age, and from the same Kohimarama club, the yachting partners are totally different in personality.

Aleh, the elder, lean and fit as a whippet, speaks fast; Powrie sits back and smiles, chipping in when she needs to. Despite being named Olivia, everyone calls her Polly. "A little cousin, who couldn't manage Olivia, called her Ollie, which became Polly, and the sailing community adopted the nickname. Her first boat was called Cracker.

"She was very determined and tenacious growing up, but quite quiet and very shy too," says her mother Sarah, an event manager at St Cuthbert's College. "People used to underestimate the strength of her determination."

For Aleh, Powrie was the one to beat - even though she was a year younger. Powrie's dad, Sefton, a furniture maker, is a long-time member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Her grandfather on her mother's side cruised on the 13.6m yacht, Ilex, "then Dad bought the boat with a bunch of mates".

Her older sister and brother, Miranda and Tom, were sailing before she started and she remembers "hand-me-down boats", including a Starling built by her father. As her mother adds, "Polly's very practical too, very good with a grinder and a drill. She spends a lot of time in the garage, sanding and painting."

Aleh had to work harder for her chance, and is probably the more competitive of the two. She came from Muriwai on the wild west coast. An only child with non-sailing parents, she was transfixed by the excitement and thrill of New Zealand winning the America's Cup. "It was 1995. Sir Peter Blake and Russell Coutts were heroes. I read all the books and they made me want to go sailing," she says. "I decided then and there to go to the Olympics.

"So Dad took me to the Ponsonby Cruising Club and on to Kohi. They had all the top girls at the time."

Her parents, both bus drivers for a while, did not have an Optimist in the back shed, let alone two like Powrie. "Dad was from Israel, Mum born in England. When I was 12, Dad took me to Israel for my bar mitzvah, where people gave me money. I ended up with, like, $3500 which bought me my first boat, old Blue Lightning."

From then on her long-suffering parents drove her to Kohimarama after school and every weekend. When her father remarried and moved to Israel with his two children to his second wife, her mother, Daniella, continued to drive her.

"Mum's an artist, with a Masters, but she maxed out her Visa and went back to uni and got her degree in teaching so she could help send me overseas. Now she's an art teacher at Mt Albert Grammar.

"She's really practical. When I had a P-Class she built a deck at home so we could rebuild the boat on it. Then, when I moved up [to bigger boats], she extended the deck so she could rebuild that one too."

By the time she was 13, Aleh's talent and drive were obvious. "John Morgan got me to come along. We couldn't afford to pay for it. Then Andrew Wills had a squad of us. He was great too. They taught me the techniques on the water, accelerated my learning."

The girls also adopted the "10K rule" that's proved invaluable throughout their careers. "The thinking is, if want to do anything well, it needs 10,000 hours of practice," says Powrie. "That means quality practice, day in, day out. Fluffing about doesn't count.

"Those hours on the water are what made us good."

While Powrie sailed for St Cuthbert's, Aleh moved to Westlake Girls', mainly for its sailing team, and the battles continued. Mostly they competed against the boys, but often against each other, because Powrie was big for her age and racing bigger boats. And, like Aleh, she was always in the top 10.

"Every Sunday and throughout the week we'd be racing P-Class over and over," says Aleh. "I can remember in the school holidays Mum would drop me off at 10 and pick me up at 3pm."

After winning a Rotary scholarship to Kingston, Canada, where she won the open and youth events on a little single-handed Byte, both Aleh and Powrie were selected for the New Zealand Youth Team - going to Portugal in 2003 and Poland in 2004, where they sailed on the Baltic Sea.

"By that time they'd been noticed by Yachting New Zealand and their trips were partially funded," says Sarah Powrie. "We also had a lot of family support: especially from my sister and family."


School melted into university but yachting always came first. After eight years, Aleh is still chipping away at what started as an extramural engineering degree and became a Bachelor of Business. Meanwhile Powrie's BA/BCom, is "getting there".

A couple of years later, on the advice of Ian Neely who'd coached them both at times, they tried sailing together in a 420 dinghy. Although it went well, both were focused on other events: Aleh on the Laser Radial at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Powrie on the double-handed 470 with Melinda Henshaw at the world championships. Aleh admits she was torn, but couldn't give up her dream.

"I watched your worlds," she tells Powrie. "I was a bit jealous."

When Powrie's partnership "didn't work out" and an attempt at sailing in the three-handed Yngling boat ended when the skipper got pregnant, she went back to concentrating on her studies.

Meanwhile, Aleh, who'd been competing in the European and World Champs for around four years and was ranked the top female sailor in New Zealand, was "still funded by Mum's Visa" and "little bits of money and grants along the way".

And she made it to Beijing. "It was a huge learning curve," she says. "You get told what to expect but it's very different when you get there. The hype and the pressure's incredible. It's a circus and you're just one of the thousands. I was young, 22. I thought I had it all sorted out.

"I had nothing sorted out!"

From finishing second at the pre-Olympics, and first at the halfway mark of the games proper, she faded to seventh. "My preparation wasn't good enough. I had weaknesses I didn't want to admit to [and still doesn't]. What she does disclose is her size. "The other girls were four, five, six kilos bigger than me ..."

"You put four years of your life into it and end up with nothing - or it seemed like nothing at the time. I arrived home feeling a bit lost, thinking about what to do next.

"Then we had a meeting at Polly's house. I remember that day, the 9th of November 2008, four years ago," she grins. It was the day when Powrie said "yes" to her proposal to sail the 470 together for 2012. "I would have been a bit stuck. I only had one name on my list."

They discovered their personalities and sailing styles clicked together like two bits of Lego. Aleh, being lighter, was skipper from the start. "In the first race we beat the boys around the first mark, then pitchpoled [flipped end over end] on the second leg. Everyone was very amused; they thought it was impossible to pitchpole a 470."

Four years later, after, probably, 10,000 hours of practice, they won gold.

From the beginning their Olympic campaign was different. "Our prep covered all the bases. We worked really hard with our sports psychologist," Powrie says.

"We've been lucky. There aren't many girls in New Zealand (at this level). And we're actually different enough that it works. "We're competitive. You're pretty driven," she says to Aleh.

"I'm very direct," Aleh agrees. "You probably think about things a little more, which is good for me, makes me slow down."

"And your style's given me a kick up the bum."

Nathan Handley, their coach, believes that that the women complement each other. "If there was a knot in a rope, Polly would carefully work to get that knot undone. Jo would pull it as tight as she could," he says.

"Jo and I love each other to pieces but we definitely have our arguments, usually about who's tactically right. I guess we challenge each other."

While Aleh looks after the numbers and accounts, Powrie does the maintenance and gets the gear list. "There aren't many sports when you need two things, logistics and boat management, how we structure our campaign. The coach doesn't, as he'd do in other sports," says Powrie.

The person credited with much of their success is David Slyfield, physical trainer at Emirates Team New Zealand and performance planner for High Performance Sport New Zealand, who helped the pair "make the right decisions - what regattas we should do throughout our build-up, where we should train, who should coach us, what areas we needed to improve in," Aleh says.

Says Handley: "Sly was the backbone of the campaign. We'd sit down together and discuss the campaign: he gave us lots of tips."

Their focus on racing took precedence over self promotion and media. "Too many people do it and don't actually perform well at the Olympics; which is why we haven't had the profile - or the sponsorship," says Aleh. Instead, Slyfield, Handley and sports psychologist Jane Magnusson wrapped around them.

What were they thinking when they lined up at the start of that last, crucial race off the English coast at Weymouth? They followed their psych training, which was a "huge help," says Powrie. Magnusson believes that brain training is just as important as physical training. "The brain has to be on a tight lead. You only tell your brain what you want it to think," she says. "So you tell yourself you're prepared for this, that you've done the training, you're ready to compete. That's commitment, that's trust, that's confidence."

Part of the technique is developing a pre-match routine, Magnusson believes. "The beauty of the routine is that it gets you to the start in good shape. It also helps the mind calm down and lets athletes focus themselves.

"With a sport like yachting, with two people in the boat, they have to perform at their individual best so they perform optimally as a team. They have to be in synch."


So what now for our two highest-rated yachtswomen? "We're definitely going to Rio together," they say. They still have to qualify and then meet the strict selection criteria before their passports are stamped.

First they have to decide what event to aim for. Right now they're tossing up between the 470 and the faster and lighter 49erFX skiff they were trying out when Aleh broke her foot.

The America's Cup is not even on the horizon. Even if they wanted to sail on a Cup boat, there are no all-female challenger teams. The increased size of America's Cup boats means that "girls wouldn't be able to do some of the
roles," they say.

Joining the Volvo Ocean Race around the world would mean missing out on Rio in 2016. And they're certainly not about to do that.

Even for champions, money is still tight. "Our parents had to stop funding us long ago. The 470s cost $25,000 each and we had three," says Powrie. "One as a backup at the Olympics and another to train in back in New Zealand. So one's on TradeMe now."

"It's just the sport we do ... no one sends us to the Olympics, but it's not like you get stopped. The America's Cup soaks up so much funding. And others have worked on the sponsorship side of the business."

So yes, they do want sponsors. Luckily for them, Christchurch-based construction company Apollo Projects is waiting in the wings.

From a personal point of view they're happy, despite Aleh's frustration with her foot. Although neither have boyfriends at the moment, only Powrie looks even mildly concerned. It's hard holding down a relationship when you spend half your time overseas and most of that on the water.

"My grandpa used to say, 'you'll never get a husband if you keep sailing'," she says. "You'll get too wrinkly."

Maybe Grandpa didn't know about the sunblock and zinc the pair slather on. As we leave and I go up to pay, the woman behind the bar says, "No, it's on us.

"Aren't they lovely girls?" she says. "So modest and natural, totally unspoiled."

I have to agree.

- NZ Herald

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