Over the next fortnight, the Herald will feature 12 Kiwi athletes or teams to keep an eye on at the Games - whether for their medal potential, rapid global rise, or captivating road to Tokyo. This is the story of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.
The career trajectories of Peter Burling and Blair Tuke changed with one phone call in 2008.
Burling, then only 17, had just competed alongside Carl Evans in the 470 at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Following the campaign, Burling began looking into sailing the 49er class.
It was a class of sailing no one in New Zealand was campaigning on at the time, and the high-performance element of the skiff-type vessel piqued his interest. Needing a crewmate for the two-person boat, Burling reached out to Tuke to see if he had any interest in teaming up.
"I think it was something we were both interested in sailing, being a high-performance class and also a pretty cool opportunity that no one was taking on in New Zealand at the time," Burling recalls. "I ended up reaching out the Blair in the early days, asking if he wanted to give a campaign a crack towards 2012."
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It was a call Tuke had been mulling over himself. At the time, Tuke had spent some time sailing the Tornado class alongside Kiwi legend Bruce Kendall and had done some sailing in the 29ers – a smaller version of the 49er. At the start of a fresh Olympics cycle, Tuke wanted to make a bid for London in the 49ers – however, he wasn't sure who he could team up with for the campaign.
"Then when Pete reached out it was obviously a great opportunity," Tuke says.
"We really just said we'd give it a nudge for a few months, see how it's going, then from there, once we were enjoying sailing with each other, we committed to that goal of trying to win a gold medal for our country."
In the early days of the partnership, the duo was on a steep learning curve as they got their heads around just what it took to sail the class to the level required to challenge for gold at the Olympics.
In their first year of competing, they failed to qualify for the gold fleet (top 25) at the World Championships, finishing 26th. A year later they were at the lower end of the top 20, though their performances were better than the results might have shown.
At that stage, they started working alongside the Australians and doing a lot of training with them, and things began to fall into place soon after.
"We had a pretty good breakthrough the season after that, about two years out from the Olympics, where we started to get a few podiums and really felt like we were in with a shot of achieving our goal," Burling says.
"We definitely went through a few low points early on in the campaign where we probably got results a bit worse than what we should have at times."
By the time the Olympics came around, the pair were a real chance of finishing at the front of the fleet, however, they were ultimately bested by the Australian team, claiming the silver medal instead – which happened to be New Zealand's 100th at the Olympic Games.
But the foundations were there, and there was no doubting the success of the pair in a relatively short time given the class was new to both of them. Signs were good ahead of the following campaign and, knowing they came close in their first bid, the fire was lit.
In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Burling and Tuke achieved their goal of winning Olympic gold for New Zealand – doing so in convincing fashion at that.
"In Rio, I suppose was got to enjoy that moment a little longer than you normally would because we had such a good series that effectively we'd wrapped up the win, or couldn't get beaten with a couple of races to go at the end," Burling recalls.
"It was a pretty special one being able to properly enjoy that last moment and it meant we were able to cheer on a couple of the other Kiwi athletes and worry a little less about our own performance going into the medal race.
"It was definitely a pretty cool day because the 470s and FX both competed on the same day, so seeing Jo (Aleh) and Polly (Powrie) go out and get another medal for New Zealand after a pretty tricky event, then after seeing Alex (Maloney) and Molly (Meech) put down a pretty good performance – it was an incredibly tight race that one, between four of them pretty much whoever won would win the gold and whatever order was what they were going to finish.
"It was pretty special being able to have it wrapped up that little bit early and be able to enjoy the moment a little bit more."
From that point, Burling and Tuke's stocks soared. Following their Olympics triumph, the pair set their sights on the next goal – helping Team New Zealand recapture the America's Cup in the 2017 event in Bermuda.
The pair didn't stop setting themselves new goals after that success. They both competed in the Ocean Race in 2018-19 – although on opposing boats – have launched their own conservation charity Live Ocean, and most recently established the New Zealand team for SailGP – an annual competition where teams race catamarans at several venues during the season before a final winner is ultimately crowned. They also guided Team New Zealand to a successful defense of the Auld Mug in Auckland earlier this year.
For all of their success, Burling and Tuke found themselves being noted as role models for the next generation of sailors - like Sir Peter Blake, Sir Russell Coutts, and Bruce and Barbara Kendall before them.
When the Ocean Race was in Auckland in early 2018, the Viaduct Harbour was buzzing with fans of all ages, many donning the gear of the teams the pair were sailing aboard, while there were similar scenes during the America's Cup campaign in late 2020 and early 2021.
"It's something you never really thought would happen when you're a young fella setting out in the sport on a pathway like this," Burling says when asked how it felt to be the two athletes the next generation of sailors is looking up to.
"I don't think it's something you set out on a pathway that you think you'll end up in this position. When I was a young person growing up sailing, it was all about just really enjoying the sport and seeing how far you could take it.
"To have that now where you have a pretty cool platform and a pretty cool following, I think it gives us a lot of pride in terms of how far you've managed to get in the sport and to be able to get a couple of Olympic medals for the country, obviously bring the America's Cup home and defend it on home waters, we're pretty proud of that as well.
"Right now, we're kind of in a phase where we're really trying to utilise that voice in a positive way as well, also the work me and Blair have started to do around ocean health through our marine conservation charity Live Ocean is something we're incredibly passionate about and we really feel like we have that duty from being able to spend so many precious moments out on the water to really do our bit to give it a voice and share some of the issues that are going on in that ocean space.
"Now that we've managed to get to this position, we're really trying to do some good with the voice we've got."
With two Olympics medals to their names and a constantly packed schedule, there was no guarantee the duo would return for another campaign in the 49er following their 2016 triumph.
It wasn't until their stopover in Auckland during the Ocean Race in early 2018 that they sat down and hashed out just how realistic it was to give themselves to another Olympics campaign given their copious other commitments.
Ultimately, they made the decision to go again.
"We took some time out from it after what we had achieved in Rio. I think undertaking an Olympic campaign is no small ask and you have to make sure you're both very motivated to do it and keen to try win a gold medal for your country again," Tuke says.
"That's exactly what we wanted to do when we sat down in early 2018, we set those sights on Tokyo and from there, once we got back from the Ocean Race we got into it."
"I think the Olympic Games always has a pretty special spot in the sailing world," Burling adds. "For us personally, it's the biggest sporting event in the world, so to be able to go there and represent our nation is something that holds a lot of pride."
The pair were well poised for a run into the 2020 Games in Tokyo, having claimed the World Championship title in both 2019 and 2020, however, as it did for many, the Covid-19 pandemic delaying the Games threw a spanner in the works.
"I'd say it would be no secret that we felt like we were pretty ready to go last year," Tuke admits. "We had a good lead into the Olympics planned in 2020. We were coming off the back of double World Champs – in Auckland here in 2019 then again in Melbourne in 2020. We were feeling confident with where we were at but still had enough on the table to keep improving over those last few months.
"But as things change, you just have to adapt with them. The world's become good at changing and readjusting, and we certainly have to do that as athletes. For us, that's meant quite a big shift in the schedule with the America's Cup coming to the forefront throughout 2020. We managed a bit of time in the 49er, but for the most part, the priority was on defending the Cup then quickly it's shifted to both SailGP and Olympic focus post the Cup, but predominantly on the Olympics as we build up to Tokyo now."
However, able to juggle their commitments and give their campaign the time it needed after the Games were rescheduled, the pair is poised for another medal-winning regatta.
They start their campaign at 5.50pm on Tuesday.
"For us, this has also been something we've put an incredible amount of hard work into over the last three years," Burling says.
"There's definitely been times where you've been working pretty hard juggling a few commitments, but we got ourselves to a point where we were in really good shape and running in nicely to where the target was set a few years ago, but with a delay that's thrown a whole heap of variables into the works, and you've really just got to be the team that does the best job of dealing with those."