The rise of Finn Lynch into the top ranks of Irish adult dinghy sailing has been meteoric. It was as recently as May 18th in Mexico that he secured the right to become our Olympic Men’s Laser representative in Rio, where the first races of the Sailing Olympiad 2016 get under way on Monday August 8th. Yet he had only just turned 20 on April 23rd 2016. W M Nixon sets the scene.
With significant Bicentenaries and Tricentenaries cascading around us these days, Golden Jubilees may not make the same impact as they did back in the 20th Century. Nevertheless an achievement of fifty years of continuous specialised sailing enthusiasm and success is still something to be celebrated at all levels.
In the National Yacht Club next year - if they can find the time in the midst of their usual busy annual programme, which will include an up-graded Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race - they might like to take an evening out to mark fifty years of their internationally-renowned Junior Sailing. It has become a pace-setter central to Irish sailing, so much so that with the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just two weeks away, of the four boats in the Irish team, two will be sailed by alumni of the NYC’s Junior Programme – Annalise Murphy in the Women’s Laser Radials, and Finn Lynch in the Men’s Lasers.
Yet we get some notion of the way that the NYC people get on with the business of the day, living and sailing as they do in the moment, that the matter of the Junior Sailing’s Golden Jubilee came up as something of a minor aside. In the midst of a discussion about the spirit of the NYC Juniors, the enthusiastic Carmel Winkelmann simply mentioned in passing that it all really goes back to 1967, when Johnny Hooper came home from a dinghy championship in Scandinavia fired up with enthusiasm about the way the clubs there put so much in the way of resources and energy towards encouraging the juniors.
In his quiet but determined way, Johnny Hooper - with his own Olympic credentials and more championship wins than you could list on one page - was able to persuade his fellow NYC members to take positive action for juniors, and continue to keep taking that positive action. For it can be easy enough to start things. It’s keeping the programme going and growing, with rising standards all the time, that differentiates the exceptional setup from the merely run-of-the-mill. The Hooper inspiration has endured and thrived. But it was only when the year of its inception happened to be mentioned that the radar flashed up: Golden Jubilee in 2017.
Regardless of what happens at the Olympics, there certainly will be something to celebrate next year. But for the next few weeks, any notions of such celebrations will be on the most remote back burner, as the entire club - and indeed all of Irish sailing - will be on Olympic high alert.
We’ll share a state of nervous anticipation as the quadrennial five ring circus unfolds afloat amidst the unrivalled beauty and unique sea water quality of Rio de Janeiro. And somewhere in the midst of it all, attention will be particularly focused on the youngest sailor ever to represent Ireland in the Olympic, a 20-year-old from an utterly rural part of County Carlow whose very young demonstrations of special talent soon saw him being inducted into the bigger world of National Yacht Club’s Junior Section, and also provided him – thanks to that special NYC spirit - with essential financial support in the crucial year of moving from junior to adult level.
Finn Lynch at 20 years and three months will not only be the youngest sailor ever to represent Ireland in the Olympics, he’ll actually be a couple of months younger than the notably young Paul Elvstrom of Denmark when he began his stellar career back in 1948, an achievement which set a benchmark for youthful Olympic sailing participation.
But as Lynch only snatched Ireland’s Olympic Men’s Laser place as recently as May 18th on the last race in the last chance in Mexico, the sailing community are still getting to grips with the fact that a rising talent, who had been showing great promise to be the ideal representative in Tokyo in 2020, has already come centre stage to begin his Olympic career in Rio 2016.
The story of how this has come about for Finn is circuitous and distinctly offbeat, yet ultimately very Irish. But if you suggested the outline of it to a movie producer as a possible film treatment, you’d probably be told it’s so over the top that audiences would refuse to accept it. All that can be said is that if it isn’t true, then somebody should make it up, as it’s too good a story to waste.
His father Aidan Lynch is of a midlands family, and though his boyhood was in Dublin, much time was still spent down the country, but boats had absolutely nothing to do with it. His mother Grainne Adams is from rural Carlow, that small county which is so beautiful that it has been rightly remarked the Creator was in fine form when he put it together.
However, neither Carlow nor Dublin offered the young couple the prospects they sought, so they emigrated to Australia. There, Aidan found much better career opportunities, and it was during his time as a rising star in the manufacturing world that he was taken on a corporate sailing outing. He was instantly hooked, and made it his spare-time business to learn about sailing and get involved with it as soon and as much as possible.
In Australia their three sons Ben, Rory and Finn were born, but after twelve years – when Finn was just two – the Australian sojourn came to and end, and Grainne was able to return to her beloved Carlow, to Benekerry which is just about as rural as it is possible get in a very rural county. But Aidan hankered after his sailing, and got involved in the nearest club, Blessington on its lovely reservoir lake just up the road in County Wicklow. In time, Blessington became his home while Grainne continued in Benekerry, and for their three boys, time with Dad saw sailing playing an increasing role. While Ben and Rory were already rising stars in the Blessington Topper sailing scene, it was when Finn had his first sail in charge of a Topper at the age of eight on Blessington Lake that history was made.
He’d already shown a complete fascination with everything to do with boats and sailing. Big brother Ben was showing additional talent as a coach, and when he ran classes in the Blessington SC clubhouse, he was at first disconcerted to see his kid brother Finn perched under the front table, bright-eyed and determinedly absorbing every snippet of boat and sailing information that came his way.
Blessington was one of the foremost clubs in the country in promoting the use of the Topper in junior sailing. But although this weekend will see the largest Irish entry ever in the 250-strong Topper Worlds which are getting under way in Ballyholme – last count had the home group pushing toward the 85 mark - only twelve years ago, the economical Topper still had a certain amount of persuading to do in order to get acceptance in Ireland.
Yet those were good times when they were building the class, and Aidan Lynch happily recalls the spirit of camaraderie and shared purpose which energised the steadily growing “Topper family” in Ireland, creating friendships which were rekindled when former Topper colleagues from all over Ireland shared in Finn Lynch’s successes.
For although he may not have started properly sailing until he was eight, in his case it seems to have been the right time, and by the age of 12 in 2008 he had been selected for the ISA Topper Squad in which he developed so rapidly that in 2009 he took the Silver Medal at the Topper Worlds in Austria.
He was still sailing with Blessington, but with the prospect of Laser sailing with the National YC coming up on the agenda, he moved his focus to Dublin Bay and by 2011 was selected for the ISA Academy. The ISAF Youth Worlds in Dublin Bay in 2012 were perfectly timed for his developing talents, where he won the Silver Medal, and added the Under 17 European Laser Radial title to his trophy list, while in 2013 he was Under 21 Laser Radial World Champion, winning the Bronze in the Open Division.
The Under 19 Laser World Champion title followed in 2014, while in 2015 he was fourth in the Under 21 Laser Worlds. But now at age 18 he was no longer a junior, yet was very much in that limbo stage in which Irish sailing seems to place talent which is no longer junior, but is still definitely not adult. It’s an undesirable state of affairs, yet with ISA resources under enormous pressure, it was not a problem which was going to be solved by the National Authority in 2015.
The 18-year-old Finn Lynch found himself right at the heart of this dead end, needing backing which was beyond family resources, but in any case frustrated at not being able to make his own way in a true spirit of growing independence. He had impressed everyone with his talent, his coolness under pressure and his sheer dedication to the sport, but a quantum leap in resources was needed to see him across the gap from family support under the ISA junior umbrella, and on into the challenging world of adult sailing based on an adequate budget.
In the Spring of 2015 Carmel Winkelmann, a strength of the National Yacht Club and particularly its junior section for longer than anyone can remember, was already working quietly behind the scenes to find support for what she reckoned was a great talent at risk of going to waste. After consulting with Finn about the events he’d particularly like to do in the year ahead and the international coaches whose talents he’d like to use, it was reckoned that with the most careful expenditure it could be done for €40,000, and that was the target Carmel had set herself by June 2015.
She’s a formidable woman when she thinks a real noise has to be made about some boat issue, but she’s much more formidable when she takes the approach of working quietly behind the scenes to achieve her objective. Her Finn Lynch fund-raising was done under the very sensible approach that good works are best done by stealth, and the money-raising was mainly through a small but impressive list of private subscribers.
I met Finn in June 2015 when there was still a considerable element of the unknown and the unknowable about it all, and then I met him again at the end of June this year when his Olympic place was secured against all the odds, and the story of what had happened in between was in keeping with the extraordinary story of how he and his brothers came to be keen sailors in the first place.
For the past year, his life has been a mobile existence. While Carmel Winkelmann and her team had to come up with all the resources to keep the Lynch show on the road, James O’Callaghan the ISA Performance Director was able to come up with the introductions to the top coaches in Croatia whose special talents fit well with the Irish sailing model. Nevertheless, even with all the support and good wishes being drummed up under the NYC umbrella, it was still a lonely enough existence for the 19-year-old Carlow lad to take himself off to southeast Europe and be the youngest in an intense training squad which lived and breathed Laser racing, but they lived and breathed it in languages other than English.
His first introduction to the notably successful Croatian training programmes was with Milan Vujasinovic, who as Finn recalls, “turned us into sailors and into men”. Then through dogged persistence, and maybe a bit of blarney, he managed to get himself taken into the elite group under the tutelage of the “medals coach”, Jozo Jakelic, who is a legend in the training world.
It’s a status he thoroughly deserves, for all of his special squad of five Laser sailors have secured their country’s Olympic places for the Rio games. Jakelic is bringing stardust to countries which would formerly have been thought of as being on the fringes of world sailing, paces like Cyprus and Poland and Ireland too, for let’s face it, despite having one of the longest sailing histories of any country in the world, in international competition terms Ireland is on the fringe.
Thus you could argue that Finn Lynch was on the fringe of the fringe group, for at 19 he was much the youngest of the Jakelic squad – the next up was 25. Yet he kept at it, keeping up a ferocious regime in which, when not in competition, you still expect to be doing a lot of sailing on at least fifteen days in very month, while gym work towards ultimate fitness is just a normal part of life all the time.
Yet in this rarefied and almost monastic atmosphere, progress was being made, but there were setbacks. Last November, while out on an intensive session on a training bike, Finn Lynch had an accident which left him with a badly damaged shoulder. At one stage it was thought surgery would be necessary, but thanks to high-powered physio with Sports Med in Dublin, he was just about able to compete, albeit with an impaired performance, at the Copa de Brasil in Rio.
One of his concerns would be that this accident would discourage his group of private supporters. But on the contrary, if anything it spurred them onto to greater efforts and a determination that he would see the programme through to leave him, at the very least, in a good condition and in a good place to begin the serious countdown to Tokyo 2020, buoyed up by the knowledge that an entire year hadn’t been allowed to go to waste.
Certainly for most observers it seemed very much an outside chance that Lynch would manage to take the Irish place through the final qualifier, the Laser Worlds in Mexico in May 2016. But the Finn Lynch who arrived at the Worlds was a different Finn Lynch from the damaged athlete who had been unable to give of his best in Brazil. And he was a whole world away from the still-to-prove himself young adult who had been in Dun Laoghaire in June 2015.
It didn’t start well in Mexico, as he’d picked up a virus which sapped his strength. But he seemed to shake it off through sheer will-power, and put in a performance of almost superhuman focus to do the job. Finn Lynch secured that Irish Laser place in the Rio Olympics in a last ditch stand on May 18th 2016, and it’s no exaggeration to say that at a stroke his lifepath had been changed.
We’ve a problem in Ireland in that getting an Olympic selection is seen as such a goal in its own right that for some athletes, it seems to be the main goal – what happens in the actual Olympics becomes almost irrelevant. But that’s not a mindset which is going to take hold in a member of Jozo Jakelic’s squad, so for a while after the Mexican breakthrough, Finn Lynch chilled out in Norway with his girlfriend and her family (she’s a Laser sailor too) and then spent private time in Ireland – continuing training all the time – until an informal gathering was organized through Carmel Winkelmann. This was in late June at the National YC where the new Olympic star was to meet again with Afloat.ie, and also put through a well-received interview with Clair McNeill of the “Carlow County Matters” magazine programme on Irish TV Sky 191, for in Carlow - even more than in Dun Laoghaire - a new Olympic star is big news.
As almost exactly a year had elapsed since I’d met him with his then only resource, a van which might well have served from time to time as overnight accommodation, it was fascinating to try to make comparisons between the more confident young man of today and that much younger hopeful of 2015.
For sure he was more of an impressive and confident presence, but essentially he was still the same Finn Lynch, but with the best bits made even better, and an underlying steely determination now getting towards something even tougher.
But don’t think for a moment that the traiming programme organized through the funding raised by Carmel Winkelmann resulted in him becoming a pampered athlete. There were times when he had to make do with the most basic and often very shared accommodation, while the budget was always tight. But the fact that he was a member of the squad which was the elite of the elites – albeit very much the youngest member of that squad in Croatia – has been transformational.
In a sense it has made him supra-national. The esprit de corps in the Jakelic squad is something which raises pure sailing athleticism above national ambitions and aspirations. Indeed, at a time when the European ideal is taking such a battering, the very existence of such a group made of rising sailing stars from the fringes of Europe is somehow very heartening. Thus the experiences of Finn Lynch during the past twelve months have an added and encouraging resonance for all of us.
Nevertheless, back home the securing of that Olympic place is yet another specific success for the NYC’s Junior Sailing, and Commodore Larry Power and his team treated us to a cheerful bar lunch before everyone went on their way, your reporter off to Wicklow to re-immerse himself in covering the Round Ireland Race, and Finn Lynch soon on his way back to Croatia and further intense yet carefully monitored training sessions to transform him from an aspirant to a contender.
That little gathering in the National YC marked the end of a phase. It quietly concluded Carmel Winkelmann’s fund-raising for Finn Lynch. She was able to provide resources in a hurry when they were urgently needed, and she was able to pass on messages of hundred per cent support from her team when things seemed to be going pear-shaped during the winter.
But now that Finn has shown independently what he can do, it’s time to turn to more orthodox lines of support, and his father has been working behind the scenes to see about putting it all on a more businesslike basis.
Inevitably, just how that all takes shape will depend to some extent on how things go in Rio, but we can only hope that a more mature attitude can be found among the rest of us. Success in Rio would certainly be a bonus, but really we should be thinking about Tokyo 2020, and simply being in contention in Rio is unrivalled experience for Japan in four years time.
Since the end of June Finn Lynch had been back in Croatia, but this week he returned to Ireland to give logistics support to the Croatian squad in the Laser Radial Worlds in Dun Laoghaire. Coaching and encouragement seem to be in the Lynch family blood – after our meeting in June, he’d set that evening aside for a special session of personal coaching for his brother Ben’s training group, and Finn will not be the only Lynch in Rio – Ben is coach to Ireland’s John Twomey and his Paralympic crew. We wish them all the very best of luck. Irish Olympic sailing turns up some remarkable stories, and this is surely one of the most remarkable of all.