The first race of the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition for the Finn Class is now just 13 days away. The Finn fleet will consist of 24 sailors from five continents and is one of the most competitive fleets ever mustered for an Olympic regatta. The Finns are the first class to race, starting on Sunday 29 July, and finish on the first medal race day on Sunday 5th August. But before then there is a lot of sailing to be done...
It is a deep field of talent. The fleet consists of four Olympic medalists, six former World or European champions, and another seven championship medalists. In fact any of 14 sailors could arguably win a medal of any colour. There is also a healthy mix of youth and experience in the fleet with ages ranging from 19 to 48, while the average is 30.
Apart from GBR as host nation, the first 18 nations qualified for a place in Weymouth at the Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships. These were AUS, BRA, CAN, CRO, DEN, ESP, EST, FIN, FRA, GRE, ITA, NED, NZL, RUS, SLO, SWE, UKR and USA.
Six more places were up for grabs at the J.P. Morgan Asset Management Finn Gold Cup in Falmouth earlier this year and five of these places finally went to: AUT, CHN, CZE, POL and TUR. Though Germany qualified, the German Federation decided not to make an entry into the Finn class, and the place was lost to the class.
Ten sailors are sailing their first Olympics, seven are sailing their second, three are sailing their third, and two are sailing their fourth and fifth Olympics. The only one sailing his fifth in the Finn is Masters World Champion Michael Maier (CZE), who has probably sailed more miles in a Finn than anyone else in history.
While Maier is the oldest by nine years, the youngest is 19 year old Jorge Zarif (BRA). Three years ago he won the Junior World Championship – the Jorg Bruder Silver Cup – and is hoping that the Weymouth experience this year will stand him in good stead for the 2016 Olympics on home waters.
Without doubt the favourite once again has to be Ben Ainslie (GBR). Though he has shown everyone the occasional chink in his armour over the past year he is still the man everyone needs to beat, and beating him will not be easy. If he wins in Weymouth he will go down in history as the most successful sailor ever at the Olympic Games, taking that accolade from another Finn great, Paul Elvstrøm (DEN).
Whatever happens, Ainslie will undoubtedly be the story of the week. He has already stated that anything else but Gold would be a disaster, so he is bound to make the headlines, winning or not. He reflected, “...a home Olympics makes it very special. I was in Trafalgar Square when they announced that London had won the bid for 2012, the atmosphere was electric and that’s when I decided I wanted to continue my Olympic career and be a part of it. It is the most important regatta in my life right now, but they were all important to get to this point. I guess I have had more time to prepare for it, and I have had to as the home competition has been tougher and the venue is also tough strategically.”
But with such a talented pool of sailors victory is not a given and he will have to work incredibly hard for it. More than half the fleet are quite capable of denying Ainslie a dream result and they want to be there just as much as he does.
One man who knows that only too well is the 2008 Silver Medalist Zach Railey (USA). He was the only man who could beat Ainslie going into the 2008 Medal race but had the door firmly shut in his face by a determined Brit. Ever the optimist Railey summed up the competition, “These are the best Finn sailors in the world going head to head at their best and that is the exact situation I want to put myself into and see where I come out in the end. It is the ultimate test and I can't wait for it to begin.”
“I race every race from a clean slate. I do not worry about the end result until the regatta takes me there. If I am beaten by someone because they were better than I was, I can accept that, but I cannot accept beating myself. The athletes always get better and better and smarter and smarter. It is amazing the progress you see over just a four year period. You have to constantly keep making improvements or you get left behind.”
The other main challenges are expected to come from Pieter-Jan Postma (NED), who took bronze in the test event and silver at the 2011 world championship; Jonathan Lobert (FRA) who took silver at the test event and always produces his best in Weymouth; Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic (CRO), double European Champion and always hovering around the top of the fleet; and Rafael Trujillo (ESP) the silver medalist from the 2004 Olympics and the 2007 World Champion, though he has had an inconsistent season so far.
Double World Champion Jonas Høgh-Christensen (DEN) considers himself some thing of a dark horse, though he is anything but that. Although he hasn't won anything since returning to the class in 2011, he is clearly on the pace and gunning for a third chance at a medal. He described the challenge. “I think the whole fleet is fitter, stronger and have improved their technique a lot. I don't have a lot of pressure as I am not one of the favourites to take a medal. Probably more a dark horse, but I think this could end up playing in my favour. I am fresh and really pushing hard all the way. But seeing the last 10 months hard work come together with me performing my personal best, that will be the biggest satisfaction. I am truly blessed to have gotten another chance to do well at the Olympics and I will do my best to make to most of it.”
Another strong challenge could also come from the double Laser medalist Vasilij Zbogar (SLO). Having moved into the class in 2010 he made an immediate impact, culminating in a silver medal at this year's Europeans. He has focussed on training rather than regattas since the early season, so remains a a bit of an unknown quantity in Weymouth.
Other potential race winners could include Hyeres winner Brendan Casey (AUS), Kiel Week winner Deniss Karpak (EST), Tapio Nirkko (FIN), Dan Slater (NZL) and Daniel Birgmark (SWE), while some of the youngsters such as Greg Douglas (CAN), Ioannis Mitakis (GRE), Piotr Kula (POL) and Alican Kaynar (TUR) have all made their mark this year in one way or another and could upset the apple cart if things go their way.
Mitakis is the current European Champion, but is realistic about his chances. He said, “I only started sailing the Finn in 2009 after realising that I became too big for the Laser, so it was really demanding to qualify both my country and myself in only two years. I would be quite satisfied with a place in top ten.”
One of the youngest is Greg Dougas (CAN) at 22, though he is sailing his second Olympics; the first was in a Laser for Barbados in 2008. “It means so much to me to be sailing at the Olympics this year. I have been working very hard for this over the last three years. My goal is just to sail my best and show these guys what I can do. I am very excited for the event because anything can happen and it will be a great all round test of sailing.”
At 36, Florian Raudaschl (AUT) is finally sailing his first Olympics, following in his father's footsteps. [Hubert Raudaschl won Silver in 1968.] “I tried it before [in 2004 and 2008] and was not sent because of our tough national criteria. I am very proud of my father, especially when I hear the different stories of him from other sailors. But to be honest when you sail yourself and try to do a good regatta you do not think of this at all.”
“My goal is basically trying to do my best at the Olympic regatta. For the first time I have spent nearly as much time training as the other sailors do. That feels very good and even when the weather and wind situation in Weymouth are not my favourite ones I really start liking the place. The whole Olympic atmosphere seems to come closer and closer and I try to enjoy this great time.”
Over the next three weeks we'll be bringing you more of the sailor's stories, the trials and tribulations, the emotions and the struggles. The full texts of the interviews with Ben, Zach and Jonas will be released over the coming week, as well as others. Tomorrow we'll look at all of the Finn sailors in a little more depth.
The Finn programme begins on Sunday 29 July and ends with the medal race on Sunday 5 August. Reserve days are scheduled for Wednesday 1, Saturday 4 and Monday 6 August.