Fourteen lucky young sailors from Hollingworth Lake Sailing Club had the opportunity to put their sailing skills to the test when the met and sailed against Tokyo 2020 Olympic 49er gold medallist Stuart Bithell.
The Juniors challenged Stuart to race in a ‘junior boat’ keen to show him what they had learned from their regatta week, and Stuart happily accepted the challenge.
The race took place on Friday 20th August, when Stuart was welcomed back to his home club Hollingworth Lake SC, where he began sailing many years ago. The club’s members eagerly greeted Stuart and congratulated him on his success, and keen to get a glimpse of his gold medal.
Although the juniors were just as impressed with seeing the gold medal as the adults, for them it was all about the Juniors vs Olympian race – and the chance to beat Stuart.
The wind was light and fading quickly as the eager youngsters took to the water. As they got ready in their boats, they were all very excited and looking forward to racing Stuart. The youngsters were also encouraged by a crowd of members watching from the shore. The race officer Betsy McGovern (3), ably assisted by her parents including RYA North Regional Development Officer Adam McGovern, made sure the race horn sounded on time.
As the race started Stuart gained a lead off the start line with Adam Smith, Jasper Bramwell, Lauren Marsh and Millie Hayfield quickly chasing him down. As the first beat continued it was clear that Stuart’s boat may have sprung a leak as he was seen to be bailing fast. His weight in the junior boat was also thought to be a ‘slight’ disadvantage! Adam rounded the windward mark first with Jasper second followed by Stuart. Lauren and Millie were hot on his heels.
As the race progressed Jasper gained a lead on Stuart rounding the second windward mark before him. However, Stuart showed Jasper his experience by tacking onto starboard and forcing him to a 720° penalty turn which resulted in him catching up. As they approached the downwind mark the pressure of racing an Olympian caused Jasper to hit the mark resulting in another penalty turn. Stuart was able to use this to his advantage and gain the lead.
Meanwhile, Millie was slowly closing the gap between her and the two leaders. Thirteen-year-old Jasper (only a third of the weight of Stuart) fought hard on the next few legs to get back in front of Stuart showing that he was much faster. Eventually, an ecstatic Jasper managed to gain a significant lead over Stuart and won the race. With Stuart finishing second and twelve-year-old Millie relishing coming in a close third. As the race finished cheers could be heard from the adults on shore.
High praise from Stuart
Stuart commented: "It was great to go back to Hollingworth Lake Sailing club where it all started for me and accept the challenge of a race against the juniors. I think they stitched me up with a leaking boat, but that wasn't the point, I was there to hopefully inspire the next generation of sailors.
"It was awesome to be back out on the water of Hollingworth Lake"
Race winner, Jasper, who also sails in the North Topper RYA Regional Training Group, added: 'I really admire Stuart's personality and sailing ability and have looked up to him for as long as I can remember. It felt really great to beat him in the race and he taught me a thing or two about rules I won't forget in a hurry. It was a fantastic night, the best one of my Summer holiday by far!'
The day also involved Stuart taking time to talk to his family and friends at the sailing club and sharing his stories from Tokyo and showing members his medal.
Rhiann Bramwell, Hollingworth Lake SC Chief Instructor, said: “Stuart showed he was a true Olympic legend, inspiring many of the young sailors at Hollingworth Lake Sailing Club. Every single junior sailor came off the water with a huge smile on their face having just raced an Olympic Gold Medallist at his own sport.
“The experience of watching Stuart win his Gold medal and then being able to race him themselves has been truly inspirational for our junior sailors at Hollingworth Lake SC. It was great to see Stuart racing with the kids back at his roots.”
It’s been a fantastic few weeks for the club’s young sailors. Bleary eyed the juniors, along with Stuart’s friends, family and club members got up early at 5:30am to watch the 49er medal race at the club on Tuesday 3rd August. They cheered and shouted as Stuart Bithell and his helm Dylan Fletcher completed a tense race to win gold in the 49er class.
Stuart is a keen supporter of the OnBoard programme, and appreciates the value of getting juniors out on the water: "Coming along to some of the 'Onboard' activities is a great way to get into the sport. It’s not just the sailing though, its meeting new friends and doing something different in a clean and green way."
Rhiann concludes: “Our junior racing fleet has grown massively in confidence with many of them now racing regularly. The kids realised that Olympic success can come from small clubs like ours if you work hard enough.
“This is one club race that will definitely be remembered! Thank you Stuart Bithell; a true sportsman in every sense.”
The race took place during the club’s Junior Regatta Week, which saw 18 young sailors taking to the water every day. Volunteer instructors and club members helped the juniors to improve their racing skills, with all the youngsters improving their confidence in racing over the course of the week.