Brother and sister sailors Sam and Molly Meech are representing New Zealand at the Olympics for the first time this year. Juliet Rowan speaks to the talented duo about growing up on a boat and in the Bay alongside the likes of yachting superstar Peter Burling and Tauranga's other Olympic sailing hopeful Jason Saunders.

For Sam and Molly Meech, the ocean is as familiar as dry land.

When Sam was 3 and Molly 18 months old, their parents abandoned their home on the ground for life on a boat.

It was an adventure that was to last a decade and gave the pair an affinity for the water that has seen them rise to the top of their sport in recent years.

"It definitely gave Sam and I the connection to the water," says Molly. "It was just always around us. It became natural, being that close to it. I think it was very strange when we moved ashore."

Advertisement

Sam sums it up even more simply: "When I'm on the water, I'm relaxed," he says.

Sam, 25, and Molly, 23, are part of a team of 12 sailors competing at this year's Rio Olympics, and among a group of four with ties to Tauranga. As well as Sam and Molly, the city is represented by Peter Burling and Jason Saunders, both of whom have previous Olympic experience, Burling winning silver at London in 2012.

The four are a tight-knit bunch, with Burling, Saunders and Sam Meech all in the same year at Tauranga Boys' College. Saunders' younger brother, Thomas, also went to the school and narrowly missed out on qualifying for Rio.

"He's a fantastic sailor too," says Sam.

Sam Meech at the Santander 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships. PHOTO/JESÚS RENEDO/SAILING ENERGY
Sam Meech at the Santander 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships. PHOTO/JESÚS RENEDO/SAILING ENERGY

"He was one of my competitors in the trials. For me it was really difficult because I'm really good friends with all the guys that I'm trialling against. It was five of us who were really close and, obviously, we'd trained together for the past four years, all trying to be the best we could. At the end of it, we always knew only one of us could go, so it was a pretty tricky situation."

Sam's inclusion in the team came down to the wire and he only learned on May 10 that he had qualified. It came on the back of two strong performances this year - a silver medal at Sailing World Cup Hyeres in France in April and a bronze medal at Sailing World Cup Miami in January.

Speaking from his current base in Auckland, Sam says the relief of being named was tempered by thoughts of friends who had missed out. "I was really stoked, but it was quite hard knowing they'd be really upset and [I] kind of put myself in their shoes as well. I wouldn't be where I am without any of them."

(Sam and Molly also flat with Tauranga swimmer Nathan Capp, who narrowly missed qualifying for Rio.)

Sam became focussed on making the Olympics after going to London as a training partner for New Zealand sailor Andrew Murdoch. "It gave me a real taste of what it was like, being at the venue just before the Olympics."

He says sailing is a sport that revolves around the Games and every other event is "just a stepping stone".

Sam is a solo sailor and representing the country in the Laser class, which he says is his favourite.

"It's one person and the boat is one design, so everyone in the world races the same boat and has all the same gear, so it's down to the sailor, which I really like."

Read more: Tauranga surf lifesaver fined over alleged salad toss

His two World Cup medals this year have been a boost, he says, but he knows Rio will be tough.

"Sailing's a sport where anything can happen on the day so you've just got to control what you can and hope that all the preparation you've done puts you in the best position on the day."

After several training camps in Rio, he also knows it is a tricky venue.

"There are seven different race courses. It's not your usual sailing event. It's somewhere you really need to spend a lot of time before the racing. There's a lot of tide and a lot of high mountains, [including] the Sugarloaf. It's very shifty, the wind."

Handling of tides is an aspect in which Sam hopes his years sailing in the Bay will give him an advantage.

"I guess the sailing at the Tauranga Yacht Club, where we had a lot of tide, will play into my hands."

Sam lived at Mount Maunganui with his family from age 16, and spent at least three nights a week and both days of the weekend on the water.

"I almost did more sailing growing up than I do now. There was always someone around and someone to race against, which I think helped everyone."

From the family home on Valley Rd, Sam was within easy reach of the beach and took up surfing, which he still loves.

"I do really miss the Mount," he says wistfully.

"When we lived down there it was amazing. You could go out every night when there was surf. I wish I had moved there a little earlier and joined the surf club, but maybe I wouldn't have done so much sailing."

Before the Mount, the family spent a couple of years in the Waikato, Sam and Molly sailing on Hamilton Lake (Lake Rotoroa).

Sam had already learned to dinghy sail in Britain during the family's yachting adventure, but it wasn't until they moved to Tauranga - the family eager to get back to the sea - that his sailing took off in earnest.

He lists America's Cup skippers Russell Coutts and Jimmy Spithall as idols, but says some of his biggest inspiration comes from his Tauranga Boys' College sailing friends "Pete, Jase and Thomas".

"Especially at the last Olympics, watching Pete and Jase race was amazing. I love seeing other Kiwis do well."

With just one World Cup event now between him and the Olympics, Sam is keeping focussed on his goal of bringing home a medal.

"My plan is just to go and do everything I can that I can control and hopefully go into the last medal race with a chance."

HIS LITTLE sister is also determined to make the podium with her sailing partner Alexandra Maloney.

Molly and Alex are competing in the women's skiff 49erFX class, and come to Rio after five years' sailing as a team and longer as friends.

Molly Meech, left, and her sailing partner Alexandra Maloney in Auckland on March 14, after learning they had made the Olympic team. PHOTO/BRETT PHIBBS
Molly Meech, left, and her sailing partner Alexandra Maloney in Auckland on March 14, after learning they had made the Olympic team. PHOTO/BRETT PHIBBS

"It's just nice to be able to have someone else out there to back up decisions and also not only that, but just the whole entire campaign, it's nice to have it with someone else. Otherwise, I think it could get quite lonely."

While her situation is different from her solo sailing brother, she says Sam will be far from alone.

"We're really lucky as the New Zealand team. We've got a really cool group of people going down to the Olympics and we're all really good friends."

Speaking to Bay of Plenty Times Weekend from Rio, Molly says she is overjoyed to be going to the Olympics with her brother.

"Sam and I are really close," she says.

"I think from growing up on the boat together and having each other as best friends back then, we've definitely got a close relationship. He's definitely a friend for me and it's really nice to be able to have him along on this journey as well."

When asked if he is her only sibling, the affection is her voice is obvious. "Yip, just me and Sam," she says softly.

Living on a yacht for such a large chunk of their childhood was an incredible way to grow up, she says, and bred a love of travel.

"I love going into new places and experiencing the culture. [We're] definitely not scared of travelling. It's more exciting, and I guess for us, the world seems pretty small. We seem to go everywhere which is cool."

Molly has known since March that she and Alex are going to the Olympics, and the pair have focussed on getting comfortable with the challenging wind and current conditions in Rio.

They are nearing the end of one of several training camps they have done in the Brazilian city and Molly says in the end, a lot of what happens at the Olympics will boil down to the day.

"In our racing, we only do 30-minute races, so they're quite short, and what you get is what you get, so you have to prepare for everything."

Molly and Alex began sailing the 49erFX, the women's high performance skiff, in 2012.

"There were rumours that the skiff was going to come into the Olympics. It seemed like the most exciting, fun opportunity. We were lucky enough to be part of the development team here in New Zealand and we were able to sail the boat while they were tuning it. That showed we made the right decision. It was so much fun, and it's just been an awesome fleet to be part of internationally."

Despite being friends with most of her international competitors, Molly says it does not impact performance.

"When you're on the water, it's all racing and down to business. Everyone knows that when you come off, you try and leave the [racing] situations behind."

Molly used to sail solo in the same boat as her brother and says the 49erFX is a much different craft.

"It's a lot faster [and] it's quite tippy so you have to really be on your toes and be able to run from one side to the other. And my position on the boat as the crew is quite athletic so I have to be quite fit and strong to be able to do my role properly."

There is also the whole added element of sailing with someone else, she says.

DESPITE HER childhood on her family's Herreshoff cruising yacht Tradition, Molly did not try sailing until returning to New Zealand as a 11 or 12-year-old.

"When I was in England, all I wanted to do was horse riding instead of sailing," she says with a laugh.

But watching Sam compete, she decided she might as well give it a go.

"And as I went up through the classes, I just grew to love it and the racing, and was doing well, so that really sparked it off."

By the time the family moved to the Mount when Molly was 14 she was enjoying success in the Starling class and represented New Zealand twice at the World Sailing Youth Championships in her teens. She sailed with "a great group" in Tauranga, including her brother and Burling, but also a lot of girls.

"It almost made me enjoy sailing a lot more because you could go sailing with your friends."

Burling and his partner Blair Tuke sail in the same class as Molly and Alex, and Molly says "we definitely look up to them". She also counts reigning Olympic 470 champions Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie, also from New Zealand, as inspirations.

Molly did her high school years at Bethlehem College and says the school was supportive when she needed to take time off to train.

Like her brother, she loved the Mount and followed Sam into surfing.

"I do pretty much everyone my brother does," she says with a laugh again, "but unfortunately I'm not as good as he is. I wasn't quite as dedicated when it was cold."

When not sailing, Molly is studying extramurally for a degree in environmental studies at Massey University. She has three papers to go which she hopes to finish by the end of the year, but admits it could be a challenge with her Olympic campaign.

Molly is hopeful she and Alex can match their performance in 2013, when they won the first 49erFX world championships.

"It was the first year the boat had been in the circuit, so winning that was an amazing feeling."

However, like her brother, Molly knows Rio could be a much different ball game.

"Since then, the fleet's definitely got a lot closer and a lot more competitive, and we've all been improving at different times, so I think it's going to be really competitive at the Games between probably eight different boats. I think it will be who can perform on the day."

MOLLY'S AND ALEX'S coach Jim Maloney (who is also Alex's father) says the two women have worked hard to tick all the boxes in preparation and have a great team of people assisting them from Yachting New Zealand and High Performance Sport NZ.

"Molly and Alex are definite medal candidates, being one of the top-ranked teams on the circuit."

Jim has worked with the pair on and off for several years and says he has seen Molly evolve from "a social club racer to world class professional athlete".

"Molly is focussed on the goal of winning an Olympic medal, but knows how to have fun with the process."

Sam's coach Mark Howard could not be contacted but earlier told The Bay of Plenty Times that everyone in New Zealand's Olympic sailing team comes from humble beginnings.

"All started out at grassroots yacht clubs around the country and with commitment, dedication and drive have risen to be world-class athletes."

WHILE THEY may be headed for Olympic glory, to the Meech siblings' mum Deb, Sam and Molly are still "the kids".

She says she and husband Simon feel for the sailors who have missed out, but are incredibly proud of their children for making the team.

STARTING YOUNG: Sam and Molly Meech say their connections to water started in childhood. When Sam was3and Molly 18 months, their parents abandoned their home on the ground for life on a boat. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED
STARTING YOUNG: Sam and Molly Meech say their connections to water started in childhood. When Sam was3and Molly 18 months, their parents abandoned their home on the ground for life on a boat. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Speaking from Whangaparaoa, where the Meeches moved in October from the Mount, Deb says a huge part of competing at the Olympics is mental strength and she believes Sam and Molly are well prepared in that regard.

Deb says there is a misconception they just go to the gym and train on the water, but they do a lot of other work as well.

She says the decade on the family yacht Tradition was also pivotal in shaping her children's personalities and giving them strength.

"The one thing about the kids - they're pretty laid back," she says. "They're pretty used to sorting themselves out and entertaining themselves, and it makes them probably quite resilient."

Deb laughs when recalling how she and Simon, a GP, decided to take their young children to live on a boat.

"I look back now and think, 'must've been mad', but at the time, it seemed like a good idea. We had a great time really, sailing and meeting other sailing families."

The first couple of years they sailed between Kerikeri, Hahei and Whangarei, where Simon did locums, before heading overseas to Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Brisbane when Molly was 3 and Sam 5.

When the season was right, they sailed to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, before crossing the Indian Ocean for Oman, and up through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean to England.

"For the kids, they always used to get asked, 'Are you looking forward to going home?' But for them, the boat was home because they didn't really know too much different," Deb says.

When asked if the family got used to negotiating rough waters, she also appears laid back.

"Yeah, yeah. There was always good times and bad times," she says, before talking more of the positive impact on her children.

"They're quite relaxed in different places because that's the way they were brought up.

They both did New Zealand correspondence school. It was a good grounding. They learned to just do the work they had to do. It taught them to be quite focused, and I'm sure that helped when it came to sailing and regattas."

Deb says neither she nor Simon have a racing background - "We're cruisers. We cruise around the world" - but fearlessness is something that obviously runs in the family.

Deb met Simon, who is British, while working as a nurse in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

She went to the local yacht club and asked if someone would take her sailing despite having no experience herself.

The pair still share an avid love of sailing and moved to Whangaparaoa after spending four years driving back and forth from the Mount every second weekend to sail their latest boat.

They lived at the Mount eight years - the longest they have lived in any one place - but the ability to easily sail to the islands around Auckland ultimately drew them north.

Deb says they are also enjoying being closer to Molly and Sam when they are home from overseas events and training.

The feeling is mutual for the younger Meeches, Molly saying she is hugely grateful to her parents for their support, and it is them who provide the answer to the difficult question of where to call home.

"The Mount was definitely a cool chapter in my life and I really enjoyed living near the beach and getting out to go surfing and sailing," she says, "but you come to realise that home is wherever Mum and Dad are, and my brother, and I think that's always going to change."

Deb and Simon plan to travel to Rio to watch their children compete.