Focussing on the job in hand with a year to go... 

Pre Olympic team more features

While Tom Daley was somersaulting into a swimming pool in front of the global media in Stratford this week, marking the year-to-go countdown to London 2012, Britain’s sailors were slipping under the radar at a closed ranks, team-only holding camp in rural Berkshire.

There may have been officially just 365 days to go until the 2012 Olympics, but for the 16 Skandia Team GBR sailors preparing for the Weymouth and Portland International Regatta – the official 2012 sailing Test event – the days between the start of racing on Tuesday 2 August and the final medal race of Saturday 13 August are the only ones that matter now.  

Over the past three weeks, the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy has gradually been transformed from the familiar home base for Britain’s sailing team, where the kitchen staff know exactly who wants what for breakfast before they even order, to the Olympic venue, a watertight, LOCOG-orchestrated, accreditation-only operation, where even the most minuscule details are part of the trial run for next year’s Big One.  

It is a strange juxtaposition where everyone involved in the regatta from the event and race management side to the teams and the sailors will have a slightly different take on the significance of the one year to go countdown. For some it will very much be ‘there is still one year to go to get everything right,’ for others that ‘still’ will be replaced by an ‘only’.  

For RYA Olympic Manager, Stephen ‘Sparky’ Park, however, the transformation in the Academy tells the story best.  

“For the first time since the Academy opened in 2000 sailors have not been able to get in this week.” he explains.

“There’s been none of this ‘Don’t you know who I am, look how many Olympic medals I’ve won’, if you haven’t had accreditation that got you in before the venue’s official opening on Saturday (30 July) you were not getting in.  

“The format of this event replicates the Olympic regatta in that it is one boat per class per country, and sailors are sailing here as part of their national teams, there are no independent entries. Considering there is a third of the competitors we saw down here for the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta in June, the amount of work going on is incredible.  

“It is very much looking like an Olympic venue now. All the logistics are in place, the venue is secure, there are ‘London Prepares’ banners flying outside the venue, the dinghy park spaces are marked up and the RIBS and event boats are lined up in the marina. The number of HGVs that have been going in and out of the marina I’ve never seen! It has been so busy.”  

The five-day venue lockdown gave the British team the opportunity to escape the relative madness around Weymouth and Portland and enjoy a few days’ team building and rest and relaxation at the De Vere Wokefield Park hotel, near Reading.  

For some of the sailors, like experienced heads Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, the prospect of another Olympic Test Event is simply part of the process trying to win another Olympic gold medal.  

But for some of the more inexperienced sailors and first timers, such as women’s 470 helm Hannah Mills, men’s 470 crew Chris Grube and the Women’s Match racing trio, the experience of being part of a close-knit team of sailors and support staff, and seeing how the older heads operate and prepare, can be invaluable in them not only performing successfully at the Test Event but having the advantage of having had a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the main Olympics, should they ultimately be selected for Team GB for London 2012.  

For the past two years, Skandia Team GBR has been fine-tuning the team’s ‘London 2012 experience’, in terms of logistics, team building and other crucial preparations.   This, Sparky admits, is another opportunity to put past experience to the test to ensure that come next summer, everything is exactly how it needs to be for Britain’s sailors to have the best opportunity to maximise their performances.  

He continued: “Sailing may have been a little bit peripheral in all the countdown celebrations this week but that suits us as we have been able to stay focussed on the job in hand, preparing for this Test Event.  

“From a team management point of view, we have to remember the things that have been successful and not-so-successful at previous Games as if we were playing away and then trying to take advantage of, and being realistic about, the things we should enforce because it is a home Games.  

“It’s about getting people into a routine, and managing expectations about what we can and may not be able to deliver. We first did a ‘home closed team camp’ for Skandia Sail for Gold 2010 so we can roll it out relatively easily now but every event is another opportunity for the sailors and support staff to learn, and feedback on, what works well, where we can realistically improve and where we can ease off. The more you practice the luckier you get.”  

The fact that nations have had to select sailors for the Test Event means it really will be the best sailors in the World today, providing a real indicator of where they all are in their campaigns, and how well they are getting to grips with the Weymouth and Portland venue.  

One thing that will be completely new to everyone at this event however, is the course areas, as for the first time LOCOG trial what they would like to be the racecourses for next year.  

Sparky believes this will create an interesting challenge for everyone from sailors to those on the race management side.  

“The courses are going to be a lot closer to the shore than ever before. All the tickets for the spectator areas for next year have now been sold so the organisers need to be assured they can put on a show for people to see.  

“These will be areas many of the sailors won’t have raced in before and because of the restrictions in size of race area it will have implications for things such as the length of a course, the number of laps sailors will have to do etc. We have been able to have a ‘best guess’ based on deduction and a some rough diagrams ISAF issued some time ago, so we have been able to practice in where we think the courses may be set but until we have a race, and a course is set, we won’t know exactly what to expect.  

“Because of the importance of the event from an ISAF perspective, we will have the world’s best officers, judges and jury onsite so it will be a learning experience for everybody.  

“Coupled with other elements LOCOG will be testing over the event, like the GPS tracking, having the big OMEGA clocks on top of all the start boats  and OFCOM checking all the radio waves, it certainly changes the whole atmosphere of the event compared to any other we have experienced at Weymouth and Portland before.”  

So the world’s best sailors, world’s best race management and less than one year until the real Olympics get underway in earnest. How much can people really read into what pans out on the water over the next two weeks? Sparky says that history suggests it is worth keeping an eye on what happens....  

“Of course there is still a year to go until the Games, and there is going to be a lot of fine-tuning going on between now and then, not to mention every country going through the process of selecting its representative sailors,” he added.  

“But the statistics tell us that 80 per cent of sailors that take part in the Test Event will go on and sail as part of their country’s Olympic team the following year. Obviously it is impossible to suggest that if someone finishes fourth here they will finish fourth at the Games. With a year to go every sailor and team will be working as hard as possible to optimise performance at the Olympics. But the statistics also tell us that traditionally it doesn’t do people any harm to win a medal at the Test Event......”