I’ve sailed my whole life. My parents were lifelong sailors and my Dad also raced. He was my first coach when I started racing competitively at 10 years old, originally in New Zealand, and went to my first international regatta at 12 years old.
I started in the Optimist class and moved up through the New Zealand junior and youth classes to the Olympic 470 class, where I just missed selection for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In sailing, only one country per class can go, and we missed out by a couple of spots at the World Championships. I kept going for another year but after a bad showing at Worlds and missing out on funding, finishing up was a financial decision.
I went to work in property and construction for a few years but really missed the sailing world too much. I’d kept sailing during this time, but not at highly competitive level. I wanted to get back into it full-time, so decided coaching was the best way to make a living through it. I’d been coaching throughout my whole sailing career from about age 16, coaching juniors, and had always enjoyed it so, 3 years ago, I decided to give it a crack. I used some contacts in Melbourne to try to get a job in Australia and received an opportunity with the Victorian Institute of Sport sailing program. This led to more national opportunities and then my current Paralympic role as of 2015 with the SKUD class.
My property project management background has been a huge help for my coaching in understanding how to run meetings, write programs, meeting minutes and notes and the whole communication side. It has played a huge role in how I try to coach now. As a competitor, we had a lot of different coaches throughout our Olympic sailing without consistency, which was probably one of the problems. What I try to do is take the best things out of everyone that I come across, especially from a few standouts, and try to model myself on how they coach.
In particular, I like Nathan Handley, who is a gold medallist coach and one of the most sought-after coaches in the sailing world. He’s a great bloke for starters, doesn’t get emotional and supports you no matter what. From him, I have learnt to keep it enjoyable, relaxed and fun. He is very good at keeping everything very level-headed, calm, and would muck in with the sailors to help with boat work, logistics and so on. He was involved in the whole program and not afraid to do the hard work with us. He’s a great role model.
Another one is Australian Daniel Smith, who sailed under the successful Australian 470 class program. I learned a lot technically from him, about how the Australians ran their training programs and drills, and their intensity of training. In the mid-2000s, there was a difference between the sailing in New Zealand and Australia. There were different techniques in use and a different focus: we were more worried about general boat speed, but the Australians were very focused on the mechanics of sailing the boat – boat handling, movement through the boat, setting the sails properly. This is probably why they were so successful in that era in the 470 class.
I did a race coaching course in New Zealand, but I think the No.1 thing as a coach is that you’ve got to be a good sailor and able to get the respect of the sailors that you coach. Having results behind you is very important, I think. Most of my education has been ongoing with some of the senior coaches here in Australia.
SAILING IS SAILING, NO MATTER THE DISABILITY
I had always coached able-bodied Olympic class and youth classes, never para. This opportunity with the Australian SKUD program is for only one year because sailing didn’t make it into the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which is a real shame. There’s some political stuff going on, and they haven’t enough nations involved at present, but they’re working to get it back on the program for 2024.
The para program is just like any other sailing class. There are 3 Paralympic sailing classes – SKUD, 2.4m and Sonar – and we work really closely with the whole team, sharing information and having group briefings every morning. Dan Fitzgibbon, who I coach, is a quadriplegic from an accident in his 20s. He steers the boat from his seat in the middle of the boat by canting or tilting the seat on both sides. His SKUD class partner, Leisl Tesch, sits in front of him in another middle seat and controls every rope on the boat and all the sails, which is a really hard job. She’s incredibly busy on the boat. The different in this to the other dinghy classes is that in those, you can move from side to side to transfer your weight to counteract the wind, whereas in the SKUD class, they’re locked in the middle. The boat can’t capsize due to the keel set up, but it does require different sailing. In terms of the actual sailing side of things, there’s no difference to Olympic class sailing. It has the same format.
Coming into coaching for the Paralympics, I was slightly apprehensive, not knowing how it would work. Over time, I’ve learnt that there’s no significant difference. I don’t do anything different in my coaching. There is a bit more logistics and more organisation, but in terms of actual training and sailing, there’s no difference. In preparation we try to keep operating as we always have and not make a big deal of it. We do our normal training and planning. Both athletes, Dan and Leisl, are very experienced athletes – Liesl has been to 6 Paralympics, Dan 3 – and are lifelong sailors with more experience than me!
WILL IT BE GOLD AT RIO?
I’m pretty excited! It will be cool just to experience the Olympics and to build my experience as a coach for the future. I would like to be a veteran of the Olympics one day, if my coaching career continues successfully. I missed out with my own sailing, so this is the second-best thing. The team are staying in hotels and apartments closer to Guanabara Bay than the official Olympic Village, so we only have a 10-15 minute drive rather than an hour and a half. We will arrive on the 28th August, 14 days prior to racing, and will have work to do on the boat prior to the regatta getting it absolutely perfect. The biggest difference to an able-bodied Olympic coaching role, is that I do a lot of the boat work for the team.
Equipment is a major challenge in the sailing world. We’ve got 3 boats we use around the world. Two boats are in Rio so that we can train when one’s being shipped around. We’ve been racing in Europe in one boat, training in Rio in another, and training in Australia in yet another. It requires a huge amount of organisation with sails, equipment and their custom made seating arrangements.
We also have excellent support staff. Tim Lowe is a boat builder who has been with Dan for 10 years, travelling to all the regattas and gets the boat ready. He’s the rock of our SKUD team and a legend of the Paralympic team. It would be very hard to do this without his support.
Our aspirations are to win a gold medal. Dan and Leisl are also the current defending gold medallists from 2012 London. However, Dan has always pointed out that it’s not all about medals and winning, it’s about trying to sail as well as they possibly can. That’s their real focus.
We’re spending a lot of time in Rio before the Games because the Olympics are such an important event that no stone is left unturned. We’ve now been to Rio 3 times already to study the venue in detail. We’ve been training out of the venue and got to know the locals at the marina, who have been very helpful to us, so we’ve been generally well-received. Unfortunately Leisl and our physio were mugged at gunpoint once in a busy park but thankfully just had their bikes stolen.
PARA-SAILING’S FUTURE PATHWAYS
Dan was a competitive sailor prior to becoming quadriplegic, but some come to the sport fairly new after their accidents. It can be a challenge as the pathway is quite difficult from learning to sail up to Olympic level. This is something the sailing world is trying to work on, looking at what sort of boats and classes we can develop to make it more achievable to get to Paralympic level with no sailing background.
ONES TO WATCH
Our main competitors are the British, who we’ve faced the last couple of years at the World Championships, and recently the Polish have come into the mix, winning the last World Championships. It’s definitely made things interesting for the next few months.
You’ve got to love what you’re doing, because then it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.
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