With just a year until the Olympic Games in Brazil, British sailors head to Rio for an important Test Event.
“Ultimately the next two years is all about winning races in Rio.”
These were the words of Finn frontrunner Giles Scott after winning gold at the first Rio Olympic Test Event with a day to spare exactly one year ago.
Now as the British Sailing Team return to Guanabara Bay for the final ‘official’ warm up ahead of next year’s Games, the Brits will be as eager to lay down the gauntlet to their competitors that they will be the ones to beat in 2016.
There’s no mistaking the importance of the event in the sailors’ minds.
“It is in the venue at the right time of the year and the same schedule we expect at the Olympics so it is a dry run for the organisers but also for the sailors,” admits London 2012 470 silver medalist, Saskia Clark.
“It’s the first event where you really get that Olympic vibe and realise this is something different because the Olympics is something really special.”
The Aquece Rio International Regatta, from 15 – 22 August, is sailing’s second official Test Event and will see 15 Brits compete against their international rivals across 10 Olympic classes in a key dress rehearsal at the 2016 venue.
With one boat per nation, per class permitted to enter, the regatta replicates Olympic-style racing where the Games will be hosted, and traditionally the sailing Test Events do provide a good indicator to form in the Olympic venue.
Ahead of London 2012, for example, Ben Ainslie (Finn gold), Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark (470 silver), Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson (Star silver) and Nick Dempsey (RS:X windsurfing silver) all won the same colour medal at the 2011 Test Event as they did at the main event 12 months on.
Additionally, the British sailors in only two of the 10 classes – men’s 470 and women’s Laser Radial – differed from the 2011 Test Event and the Olympics.
Stuart Bithell won silver with Luke Patience in the 470 at London, but now sails the 49er with John Pink. He said: “We’ve had our eye on the end target, which is a medal in Rio 2016, for a couple of years now.
“We set out building blocks on the way and performing at ISAF World Cup Weymouth and Portland was one of them and getting selected for the Test Event was one of them so arguably everything’s going to plan, which is brilliant.”
The British Test Event selections were announced after ISAF Sailing World Cup Weymouth and Portland in June.
Here Britain’s sailors picked up six medals in five of the Olympic classes, including golds for Scott, Mills and Clark and Dempsey. In addition, Britain’s Paralympic classes sailors claimed a further five medals, including gold for London 2012 2.4mR champion Helena Lucas and Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell, who won 2012 bronze.
There’s no official Paralympic Test Event currently scheduled but the pressure is already off for Lucas who was named as the first member of the Great Britain team in any sport for Rio 2016 in April. Sailors in the other two Paralympic classes, SKUD and Sonar, continue to battle it out to get the final nod for Brazil.
While the 2011 Test Event team comprised more sailors who had been to previous Games – 10 Olympians compared to six newcomers – the trend this year is reversed. With selections for the Laser and RS:X women still to come, seven of the current Test team haven’t been to a Games before, compared to six that have.
One of the unique things about Test Events is not only do they provide sailors with the chance to further familiarise themselves with the venue and racing format and lay down a marker to their rivals, it is also one of the only times they will experience the dynamic of being part of such a small team.
The British team has always had a reputation for its close-knit, supportive nature and it is these events it is carefully fostered and honed to ensure that come the Big One the sailors feel comfortable, relaxed and supported to perform at their peak.
Team veteran Dempsey, a silver and bronze Olympic medalist aiming for his fifth Games at Rio, knows how invaluable that ‘bubble’ is.
“It’s the only time in the whole Olympic cycle the team becomes so small, with just 15 sailors,” he explains. “From my past experiences once you get that really small team, the team comes together a little bit more to bond a little bit better.”
For first-timers like Nacra 17 pair Hannah Diamond and John Gimson it cannot come quickly enough. The partners only teamed up in October 2014, but between them have a Worlds silver medal and a bronze from last year’s Test Event. Getting the chance to shine in Rio a year out from the Games is huge.
Diamond said: “We’ve both had a tough six months; we’ve worked really, really hard to get to the level we need to get to, so the feeling of being selected is all that emotion coming together.
Gimson added: “We’re unbelievably chuffed. Last time I was Iain Percy and Bart Simpson’s tuning partner in the Star so I learned a lot that cycle and I have just been dying to put it all to use, and to get selected for the Test Event. I could not be happier.”
The 2014 Rio Test Event certainly produced some good omens, with the Brits medalling in 8 of the 10 Olympic classes.
Laser Radial sailor Ali Young was one of these, winning silver. She believes Rio has the potential to be one of the great Olympic sailing venues.
“Rio’s a fantastic venue, there’s a huge variety of conditions,” she explained. “You have got swell outside of the bay, choppier in the harbour; you have got tide, topographic effects; I think it is a fascinating place to sail. I am looking forward to any challenge the venue throws at us.”
As Team Manager Stephen ‘Sparky’ Park concludes: “It is going to be important for all of our sailors and support staff to really get stuck in and to learn from the opportunity this year’s Test Event offers, recognizing we’ve still got a further 12 months to be able to step the game up a little bit more and put those lessons into practice for the Games itself.”
The stage is set…
To stay up to date with the British Sailing Team on the road to Rio 2016 visit www.britishsailingteam.com, like on Facebook and follow on Twitter @BritishSailing.