Photos: François Richard, Robert Deaves
“I think the Olympics is probably the biggest challenge you can have in sailing and I think that is what keeps drawing me back.” In just four weeks time, the London 2012 silver medalist Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) will be heading into his fourth Olympic Games, after making another comeback campaign.
“It’s the biggest challenge I can put upon myself. And I really enjoy that challenge and working against those goals and being told you won’t be able to do this and then doing it anyway. I like that.”
Experience is the key word for Høgh-Christensen regarding competing in Rio. “If you have superior speed you will do well. But if we all show up and go about the same speed, I think experience will be key. I have been there and know what it takes. I am also probably stronger all round so will be hoping for a bit of everything.”
He also says it was simply the love of the sport that brought him back. “Many people think I have an axe to grind, that I need to come back and try and win the Olympics. There is no doubt that is the goal but it is actually the love of the sport that brought me back. I really do enjoy sailing. I think the Finn is the most competitive class for guys my size. And I think it is a lot of fun.”
Høgh-Christensen did his first Olympics in Athens in 2004. He had just turned 23 and was the youngest guy in the Finn class. “I actually did quite well in a couple of races. Looking back at it, one of the main things was that I wasn’t in good enough shape.” But he had no expectations, finished ninth and was pretty happy.
At Beijing in 2008, “I came in as one of the favourites and had a really bad start to the event and ended up for me, a disappointing sixth. I ended up taking two or three years off and went back into the Finn class to run for London.” During those ‘three years off’ he also won his second Finn world championship, with hardly any training. It proved to everyone that he was still hungry for success as well as obscenely talented.
In London, “I think we managed to give Ben [Ainslie] probably the biggest run for his money ever. So that is sort of what we are trying to do again. I am just four years older, my body is a bit more crooked, but I am that more experienced as well.”
“I think it is going to be very different from London. It is probably going to be a little lighter. It is going to be a lot trickier; we are going to see higher scores. But I think we will see some fierce competition. Hopefully we will have the wind and weather with us and we will get some good races in. I think where that was almost a given in London, it might be a little bit more risky for Rio.”
“It is very common for the Finn class to be very fierce on that water. People shout and yell at each other and it will almost be like gladiators fighting to the death. But once we get in, we are all friends and people go for a beer and we still have a good time.”
He knows the competition will be tougher than ever, with a lot of old and new talented sailors to line up against. “The depth is big and the class is growing. It is growing because it is very physical. And it is a good fun boat where you can be strong and you can be big and you don’t have to be on a diet to go sailing. You can actually go to the gym and work hard. If you look at most of the Finn sailors they actually look like rugby players.”
One of the main obstacles for Finn sailors heading to Rio is of course Giles Scott (GBR). “Giles is a very good sailor. He is a little different to Ben. I think where Ben’s strength was his tactical and strategic abilities, Giles’ big force is his size and his physical strength. He is a very technical sailor, he sails the boat really well. He doesn’t take too many chances, he just goes fast and tries to stay out of trouble and he has been doing that really well for the last couple of years.”
Back in 2012 Høgh-Christensen famously said, “Next time around there will be no old school sailors with a bit too much fat. They will be fit, tall and young. With that said, it looks like my time is up.” He stands by that statement, “The sailors have become much fitter, much stronger, taller, younger and more technically adept. It has not become easier. If you see the picture of the top 10 at the World Championship this year, I am the smallest guy there.”
But, “I like to challenge myself. The Olympics is the biggest challenge I can put upon myself. I think going to the Olympics every time is climbing an Everest. I think what we did last time around was as close as it gets. There are times that you are going for a run and it’s raining and it’s five degrees and it feels like you have to climb Mount Everest. You know this is pretty physically tough to keep doing this everyday and so I think for everybody that is doing this full time and really trying to win a gold medal, it is like climbing Mount Everest for them.”
His campaign for Rio started with a call from the Danish federation asking if he could help them qualify the Finn class for the Olympics at the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Santander. “I didn’t do a lot of training for it but I did the event, and I realised I really missed sailing. I probably knew before I went but I really did miss sailing a lot.” He did his first event the following year in Palma. Then, “I quit my job and went full time sailing.”
After finishing as runner up at the Gold Cup this year he planned three training camps in Rio, two weeks on, one week off. “I tried and spend as much time there as possible as the current, waves and wind are super tricky and really needs a lot of work to perfect.”
“Sailing in Rio sure does give some new experiences. You have to adapt and reconcile with any challenges coming your way both on and off the racecourse. We have had a ton of bad luck with a broken mast, rudder, sails, cameras and other equipment, but better now than in August. On the water we have sailed in 6-8 meter waves one day, crazy current the next and the wind is all over the place, so is the debris and filth in the water too, which gives another dimension to the sailing.”
Just before the London 2012 he broke his favourite mast in training. When his gear arrived in Rio for training he found again, one of his masts had been broken in transit. “Not sure how it happened. The luck we have had lately is disproportional. It should be impossible to be this unlucky. Hopefully there will be some balance and good things are coming my way. The mast is broken, nothing we can do about it other than move on. Luckily we prepared for setbacks like that.”
“Our last training camp in mid-July will be on final details and learning to sail with the new equipment. It’s the small things now. Fine tuning. Checking boxes.’
“Also I am trying not to fall apart physically as I am getting old. I try to do minimum 8-10 gym sessions a week and sail 3-4 hours six days a week. I then have some weeks in a low gear with minimum sailing and a recreational training to recover and get ready for the next camp.”
Turning his mind back to the medal race in 2012 when he lost he gold medal, after being in first place all week. “It took me probably close to two years to actually even be able to watch the medal race. I see a couple of the races where I didn’t do that well and had I not made a couple of mistakes I probably would have been further ahead and I could have sailed the medal race completely differently. I put myself in a situation where chance or risk was a big part of the outcome. Next time I will try and be a bit further ahead.”
NOT A LOT OF PEOPLE KNOW THAT
After both the Beijing and London campaigns Jonas Høgh-Christensen took time away from Finn sailing and worked in the music industry organising and promoting large concerts in Denmark. He has also played a key part in building Denmark’s new national arena, the Royal Arena. His wife is pregnant and he will become a father in November. He likes classic cars and would love to collect them. He has also started the website www.boatflex.com for peer-to-peer boat rentals which is growing fast. “We hope to be the AirBnb of sailing.”