Peter Burling seems to have an innate talent for sailing. Michael Burgess learns how it grew.
Peter Burling possesses a certain mystique. Everyone knows he can make a boat go fast, but few understand exactly how. Even those who know him best struggle to crystallise it.
One of his mother Heather's favourite anecdotes comes from 2002, when the family took a holiday in Europe.
"We chartered a small boat in Greece," says Heather. "Pete could sail the boat along, look out at what was happening around him and have the boat moving beautifully over the waves. If any of the rest of us were doing it, we would be hitting the waves, getting splashed.
"He was an 11-year-old kid, but we sort of knew that when Pete was on the helm, all of us got the most comfortable ride. He has always had that feel. We didn't know why — we didn't know what was happening."
His father Richard agrees Burling has long possessed a unique talent. "He has been able to make boats go faster than they should his whole life," says Richard. "It doesn't matter if they are little boats, or at the Olympics or America's Cup."
Former coach Nathan Handley was quick to notice something special, after hearing about a kid from Tauranga making waves in every class he tried.
"He was really quiet, didn't say much," recalls Handley of meeting the 15-year-old in 2006. "His dad did most of the talking for him. But he looked good in the boat, he had that 'wow' factor.
"The way he moved, the way he trimmed the sails. He had a really good feel in the boat, how to keep the balance right in the trim of the sails.
"From a coach's point of view, you would think 'wow, that's pretty much on the mark'. I'm forever talking to sailors about pulling sails in a little bit more here or a little bit out there — but Pete had a pretty good eye."
With the debates about kids, sport and developing future champions, Burling's trajectory to the top is telling. While obviously talented — and fascinated by nautical pursuits — his career evolved organically.
"The kids grew up having fun sailing," says Richard. "We got them an old Optimist because we thought it would be a great skill to learn. And it was important he did some team sports."
There was basketball at primary school, then a stint at fullback for the local football club.
"He was good but he wasn't the rockstar and still really enjoyed it," says Heather.
Once Burling's sailing career took off, there was less room for organised sport, but still time for mountain biking and golf with mates, tennis with the family or badminton in the back garden.
And sailing retained a fun element. Inspired by Peter and older brother Scott's passion, their father started a learn to sail programme to try to boost the sport in Tauranga, which was far from the Auckland hub. Eventually there were around a dozen kids the same age as Burling, all sailing competitively, though they rarely had specialised paid coaching.
"They were best mates and would all spend the weekend sailing and playing on the boats," recalls Heather. "Playing 'tag', standing up in the boats, taking the rudders off and windsurfing.
"They were pushing each other without realising they were doing it; having fun but picking up the innate balance and knowledge they needed."
Burling's initial breakthrough came at the 2002 Optimist nationals (under-15). In a fleet of 180 kids, most older, the 11-year-old from Welcome Bay shone.
"We used to travel up to Auckland on the Friday and I think he was tired before the regatta started," recalls Heather.
"For that nationals, we went up a couple of days early. He won the first two races and he was just off."
That was the springboard. Burling finished second — Richard still laughs that it was the "one that got away" — and was selected in the five-strong New Zealand team for the world championships.
"It suddenly meant he was up there training with them, being exposed to new ideas and concepts, and he soaked it up," says Heather.
From there came a dizzying procession of national titles (Optimist, Elliott 5.9, 420, Starling), then an Olympic campaign, while still a student at Tauranga Boys' College.
"They were so young," says Handley of Burling and 470 teammate Carl Evans. "When we went to Europe for the build-up to Beijing, his dad had to come because we were doing really long driving in between events and the boys couldn't even drive."
Just like Bermuda in 2017, over the next few weeks, Burling will become the most scrutinised man in New Zealand sport but his parents have rarely seen him nervous and don't expect that to change.
"He doesn't show it, so I don't think you would know what was going on inside," says Richard.
"It was internalised for him. Even back in the Opti, it didn't matter if he came 30th or first, before the next race, he would be going through the same routine ... it didn't worry him."
"That's always been Pete," agrees Heather.
"When the pressure goes on, he does better. He responds to pressure."
That has been shown in numerous 49er world title and Olympic wins alongside Blair Tuke and was exhibited again in 2017.
Not everything went to plan there and Burling was a match-racing novice compared with rivals such as Ben Ainslie and Jimmy Spithill, but he coped with each new challenge.
"All Jimmy's mind games and stuff, I don't think they worried Peter last time and I don't think they will worry Peter this time," says Heather. "He takes all that with a grain of salt."
Burling's main preoccupation is the performance of the boat and the team, and Heather points out that his accelerated path developed a tough edge.
"He always ended up sailing against kids who were bigger than him, learning about standing up for yourself," says Heather. "Self-belief came relatively early on, and he knew it was about what happens on the water."
There is a cost to fame for the 30-year-old, especially the constant recognition.
"If we walk up the Mount [Maunganui], people turn around and see him, even though he is wearing a hat and sunglasses or whatever," says Richard. "He didn't really sign up for all this when he started sailing. But he always has a positive spin. He says it means the country is behind him, people are watching yachting and how cool is that."
The Burlings, who will watch the Cup racing from North Head, like thousands of others, remain amazed at what has unfolded over two decades.
"We didn't take Pete and Scott along to sailing and think about the Olympics and America's Cup," says Heather. "That was the last thing. You know how some families go skiing and it is all competitive and others just go to have fun? That's all we wanted, for the kids to muck around in the water.
"Pete just got really good. But it was never in our ambition for them to competitively race, let alone all the insane stuff that Pete has done. It was more just 'hey, let's go have fun on the weekends'. But it has dragged us along, that ride."