The Olympic Sailing Competition rose to a dramatic crescendo, with the home nation winning a gold medal in the Women’s Skiff by the most ridiculously small margin, just two seconds. Silver would have been great, but gold for Brazil has set off a party that will last for days. In the Men’s 470, Croatia won its first ever gold medal in Olympic sailing.
After no wind the previous afternoon, the final day delivered perfect 14-knot breezes for the finale. The four Medal Races kept the crowds on Flamengo Beach entertained all afternoon. It started with an ever-shifting battle for silver and bronze in the
Women’s Skiff – 49erFX
Brazil wins 49erFX gold by two seconds from New Zealand
The crowd on Flamengo Beach went wild as Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze (BRA) won gold by just two seconds from Alex Maloney and Molly Meech (NZL) in a nailbiting final run to the finish. New Zealand took silver and bronze went to Denmark’s Jena Hansen and Katja Salskov-Iversen. The team to miss out on a medal from the four-way battle was the Spanish crew of Tamara Echegoyen and Berta Betanzos.
With the wind blowing 12 to 15 knots, New Zealand launched off the left-hand end of the start line, Brazil got away cleanly from the middle while Denmark and Spain made messy starts on the right. Maloney and Meech got into a good lead on the first lap but led Brazil by just 13 seconds at the halfway stage of the three-lap race. At the bottom gate, the Kiwis chose the right-hand side and Brazil broke off to the left in search of something different. When they came back together again at the top of the course, Brazil’s alternative tactics had given them a ten-second lead.
Down the run to the finish the Kiwis attacked hard and made up ground on the Brazilians, but somehow Grael and Kunze held on to get across the line just two seconds ahead.
After five-time Olympic medallist Robert Scheidt just missed out on a sixth medal in the Laser, finishing an agonising fourth, it was critical that the Brazilian 49erFX team came away with something from the final race of Rio 2016. To come away with gold has sent their home nation into ecstasy. When Grael and Kunze won gold at the Olympic Test Event a year ago, the Brazilian media went wild. But one can only imagine how big this will go now that they have become Olympic Champions.
Grael’s victory continues a great family tradition, her father Torben having won five Olympic medals for Brazil. Torben was watching from a coach boat and was one of the first to congratulate his daughter. Martine said, “To receive the medals here in Rio with all our friends and family is indescribable. But I didn’t think about the fact the Brazilian sailing team had no medals. I was just focused on the race, nothing else.”
Kunze said, “Before starting the Medal Race we hugged each other and said, ‘Let’s give our best and no matter what the result it’s going to be fine.’ We were already happy to be among the first four teams, that was already an excellent result. And it’s incredible to compete at home with these amazing fans. We hope to influence more girls to compete in sailing and to make our sport grow.”
Maloney and Meech so nearly made it a Kiwi double in the Skiff classes after Pete Burling and Blair Tuke had won gold in the Men’s 49er. But any disappointment at missing 49erFX gold was swiftly cast aside as the Kiwi girls celebrated taking the silver. “It’s an amazing evening for the Brazilian girls,” said Maloney. “I think the next couple of weeks will be pretty special for them.
With her brother Sam winning bronze two days earlier in the Laser Men’s division, it’s a double celebration for the Meech family. “I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s been an amazing week,” said Molly. “We’ve sailed really well and were really happy with the way things have gone this week. The Olympics has been an amazing experience. It’s awesome to have all the support back home and everyone getting up early to watch us race, it’s really cool. The whole of the New Zealand sailing team has been working really hard for the last four years and I think that it’s all paid off for everyone. It’s amazing to be part of the team.”
Hansen and Salskov-Iversen beat the Spanish in the battle for bronze. The 49erFX was expected to deliver some of the most exciting and unpredictable racing at Rio 2016, but no one could have imagined that the gold would come down to the last two seconds.
GBR wins 470 Women’s gold, New Zealand silver, France bronze in tight Medal Race
With Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark (GBR) having already won the Women’s 470 gold medal, the battle for silver and bronze came down to a six-way fight between New Zealand, USA, France, Japan, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Annie Haeger and Briana Provancha (USA) took up the early running and led for the first lap, putting them in silver medal position ahead of the 2012 Olympic Champions Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (NZL).
The shifting wind produced some new race leaders on the final lap, with Tina Mrak and Veronika Macarol (SLO) streaking away to win the Medal Race. Meanwhile the battleground for the medals was changing by the moment. The Americans were given a penalty turn for fouling the Japanese crew which put them to the back and out of the medals. This left the way clear for New Zealand to take a jubilant silver medal with reigning World Champions Camille Lecointre and Hélène de France (FRA) making a late charge from the back of the fleet to finish sixth, sufficient to give France the bronze by a single point from the Netherlands crew, Afrodite Zegers and Anneloes van Veen. It was tears of joy for the three Medal winning crews but the Americans were distraught after having controlled the race early on, only to come away with nothing.
On winning gold at her third Olympic Games and her second with Mills, Clark commented, “It’s our second Games together and to actually have a gold medal after seeing our team mates do it in the past and this week as well, for us it’s just so exciting.”
Mills said, “We’re totally overwhelmed right now. Obviously we knew we’d kind of clinched it but I did so many boat checks this morning because we still had to finish the race. That felt like such a lot of pressure to finish one 20-minute race. We were desperate to race yesterday but we are actually quite glad we didn’t as it was a cracking sailing day for our medal race with sunshine, wind and waves. It all overwhelms you at once – especially when you see your family and friends who have come all this way to support you and have been with you every step of the way and to be able to share this special moment with them was very overwhelming.”
Aleh had no regrets at not being able to defend the gold medal from London 2012. Silver was still great. “I don’t have any what-ifs. Sometimes in sport it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. We’re just proud of the fact we’ve been able to fight all week and come out with a silver. It means more to us than a gold because we’ve had to fight for everything. Nothing went the way we wanted it to really. We just battled and to contemplate a silver from where we were half way through the event seemed like an impossibility, so we’re really happy.”
Lecointre was relieved to come away with bronze. “The competition level was close, there were six boats or even more who could have won a medal here so we are so happy we managed to come back into bronze medal position on the final lap of the last race.”
Men’s Two Person Dinghy – 470
Croatia wins first ever sailing gold in Men’s 470, Australia silver, Greece bronze
Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic have won Croatia’s first ever gold medal in Olympic sailing. The Croatians sailed a controlled race, making sure they stayed ahead of their rivals Australia and Greece. However, Mat Belcher and Will Ryan (AUS) were much concerned about protecting the silver medal and engaged Panagiotis Mantis and Pavlos Kagialis (GRE) in a match race before the start.
With the race underway, the Swiss team streaked off into the lead, but the three medal contenders were much more interested in covering each other’s moves at the back of the fleet. With the Aussies and Greeks caught up in their own duel, Croatia’s job of defending gold became straightforward.
Meanwhile, Belcher mostly had the best of Mantis until the top of the final windward leg when Ryan lost his footing and briefly fell overboard but still pulled himself back on board with his trapeze handle. The Greeks seized the moment and moved into the lead, but the Australians attacked again on the final run to the finish. They pressured the Greek boat into making a small mistake on a gybe, and the 2012 Olympic Champion steered the Aussie boat for the finish, crossing the line just six seconds before their rivals to secure silver for Australia. Despite missing out to the Australians, the Greek crew was still very happy with bronze after a tough series at Rio 2016. “It’s amazing to be on the podium at the Olympic Games,” said Mantis. “It’s what I have always dreamed of. As the race started today it was a game for all of the medallists but as it continued it was a fight between us and the Australians until the end. We had a great last day of racing. The other medal winners sailed perfectly and they deserve it.”
Fantela and Marenic’s victory crowns a stunning week for Croatia, the 470 Men’s gold going alongside Tonci Stipanovic’s Laser Men’s silver just two days ago. Croatia had never won an Olympic medal in sailing, now it has two. “It was a good morning,” said Fantela. “I feel really happy, calm, no stress, no pressure. Like the first day of the rest of my life, I really feel good.”
From the outside, it seemed the Croatians made easy work of Rio, but Fantela commented, “This was one of the toughest weeks for me in my whole career, nine days of racing, a bent mast in the storm, a broken mainsail and lots of waiting on the shore. So I was taking every day as a challenge, as there was always something new. I knew if I stayed calm and focused all the time, I knew we could win the medal.”
Belcher had no regrets with his and Ryan’s performance, not even the moment when Ryan half slipped out of the boat. “This is part of sport, we were in a really tight battle and mistakes happen. But for Will to be able to come back and refocus shows the level of our team’s ability. It’s been a difficult week for us. We’ve had to overcome a lot of things but I couldn’t be more proud of what our team have done and to come away with silver is a fantastic achievement. We wanted gold, but hats off to the Croatians because they truly deserve it.”
Men’s Skiff – 49er
New Zealand win 49er Gold, Australia silver, Germany bronze
For Peter Burling and Blair Tuke (NZL), the Medal Race was a victory lap, the Kiwis having won the 49er Men’s gold medal with two races to spare after dominating the 20-boat fleet at Rio 2016 over the past week. The unstoppable Kiwis stamped their authority on today’s Medal Race just as they have throughout the past four years, the four-time World Champions undefeated since taking the Olympic silver medal in London 2012.
Tuke said, “We’ve been working hard on always getting better throughout the four-year cycle since London 2012 and this week I think is the best we’ve ever sailed.” Burling added, “We’ve always had this goal for the last eight years, and we’re super proud to do this for our country. Blair and myself wanted to go out and try and dominate early and come to this event with people chasing us. We enjoy the pressure of being the favourite and the challenge of trying to rise to that level of expectation.”
Erik Heil and Thomas Ploessel (GER) began the day in silver medal position, but started the race very badly after a poor manoeuvre just 20 seconds before the start. This put the Germans on the back foot and opened the door for Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen (AUS) to seize the advantage. The 2012 Olympic Champions did enough to stay ahead of their rivals and won silver for Australia, Germany taking bronze.
Outteridge might not have managed to defend the Olympic title but the Aussies were pleased to have upgraded their position on the podium. “We did as well as we could today, coming in we were bronze and the most we could get was silver and we managed do it so I am very happy.” Outteridge and Jensen have barely had a week off between professional sailing commitments. “We’re going to relax for a few weeks then head back to Bermuda and on to the America’s Cup.”
For Outteridge, the Olympic dream has been an obsession. “I remember watching the Sydney Olympics when I was a kid and remembered thinking that the sport I was doing was actually in the Games. I hadn’t really realised it before that stage so from that point onwards it was always a passion and a dream to get to the Olympics. This is my third Olympics now and winning a gold and a silver out of three is a pretty good track record. I am proud of the achievements that Iain and I have made together.”
Ploessel said the final race could have gone better. “The Medal Race was really tough for us, especially with Nathan and Iain chasing us. We put ourselves under a little too much pressure and it was hard for us to have a good race. We will analyse our mistakes and come back stronger. Heil said, “We came here with the goal of finishing somewhere between second and sixth and if we sailed well maybe we could get a medal. So to achieve what we did, we are very happy.”
By Andy Rice – World Sailing