All six of Ireland's Olympic sailing team bar one are in action at the final World Cup sailing competition ahead of Rio 2016 gets underway this week in Weymouth this week.
Ireland’s Olympic veterans from four years ago will be first into action on Wednesday morning. The venue is the notoriously windy London 2012 Olympic site though the sailors are preparing for completely different conditions expected in Brazil.
Annalise Murphy in the women’s single-handed Laser Radial event will face all three medallists from her event in 2012 when she narrowly missed a place on the podium. China’s Lijia Xu (Gold) along with The Netherlands’ Marit Bouwmeester (Silver) and Belgium’s Evi Van Acker (Bronze) are all on form but are in turn are joined by challengers such as Britain’s Alison Young, the recently crowned world champion.
Newcomer Aoife Hopkins (18) is also in Weymouth for more competition experience at world-class level after unsuccessfully challenging Murphy for the Irish place in Rio during trials earlier this year but with the radial worlds in Dun Laoghaire in July now the next target.
Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern in the men’s skiff 49er class will be seeking to make good on their Gold medal performance at the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma in early April with another podium result to boost their confidence before final training for Rio in August commences. However, four-times unbeaten world champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke from New Zealand are not expected to compete in Weymouth this week.
The women’s skiff event makes its debut with the 49erFX class at Rio 2016 and Ireland’s Andrea Brewster and Saskia Tidey are aiming to build on recent strong individual race performances at recent major regattas following an injury-enforced break at the start of the year. The pair will be using this week’s regatta to improve consistency across their series with the aim of reaching the medal race final.
Absent from Weymouth is Finn Lynch, the 20-year old rising star of Irish performance sailing who recently won a three-way selection trial to be nominated for Team Ireland. His event in Rio is the men’s single-handed Laser standard class and the Carlow native is currently at a three-week training camp in Croatia. Inclusion in the Irish Providence squad for Rio 2016 marks the high-point of an eight-year career that to-date includes world and youth titles.
268 boats from 40 nations are taking part in ten disciplines, many featuring athletes expected to be contesting the Olympic regatta in two months time. Ireland is competing in three of the ten disciplines the Laser Radial, the 49er and the 49erFX.
The four-day opening series starts on Wednesday (8th June) while the top ten boats in each discipline will contest a double-points medal race final on Sunday.
Sailing World Cup Weymouth and Portland has a poetic story bubbling under the surface as the Rio 2016 Olympic Games get ever closer.
In the home of the London 2012 Olympic Sailing Competition, Weymouth and Portland, the Sailing World Cup is the last opportunity for fleet racing at a recognised regatta for the majority of the sailors before the torch gets handed over to the Marina da Gloria for Rio 2016. One Olympic venue straight to the next.
It may be the last big regatta before the Games, but for some sailors it's also the first since they got the news that they would have the honour of representing their nation this summer.
Two sailors in that category are New Zealand's Laser sailor Sam Meech and Australia's Jake Lilley in the Finn. Something else they share, relief.
"It's really important to get through the selection process, it takes about 18 months and it does start to weigh on you a little bit, so to get the nod is a bit of a relief,” said Lilley.
With relief evident and selection confirmed the focus for Lilley is now, as simple as it sounds, racing, "I'm working on a bit of race process here [at the Sailing World Cup]. Most of our equipment is in Brazil right now so the main focus is on racing and not the equipment set up so much. The calibre of the fleet here is full of guys close to the top end so it's all about racing and execution. This is the first and last regatta before Rio since the selection.”
In his 'first and last regatta', Lilley will compete against formidable opponents such as Great Britain's four-time world champion Giles Scott, France's London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Jonathan Lobert and Finland's Tapio Nirkko in the Finn Sailing World Cup fleet.
In another strong fleet and echoing the thoughts of his Trans-Tasman neighbour, Meech also felt the weight lift from his shoulders with his national selection confirmed, "It's fantastic and it's a pressure release which has been building since half way through last year.”
Again with the same train of thought as the Aussie towards the Sailing World Cup timing, Meech said, "It's the last big race for all us really and there are some things I want to work on before I head back out to train in Rio. The fleet looks pretty good. There are a lot of the top guys here so there should be some good racing.”
An area that Meech's preparations differ is in the processes the Kiwi has to get used to, "The fleet size will be very similar to that of the Games so in that respect this regatta is fantastic but working one on one with the coach is a bit different as there is usually a team of us. That's a bit strange.”
Meech won't be totally alone in Rio as compatriot Andy Maloney will be in attendance to act as a training partner, but the coaching will be solely focused on him as there is only one spot per country in each Rio 2016 fleet. This is a big step out of the comfort zone for Meech who usually has a team to rely upon, "There has been five or six of us in the squad every time I have been sailing. It feels really weird not having the other guys here and training with them.”
Whether comfortable or not, both Meech and Lilley will be looking to take the opportunity presented to them at Weymouth and Portland to race in high calibre fleets in the home of London 2012, before they head to the next adventure of Rio 2016.
Getting used to the processes, the similar size fleets, the high calibre opponents and racing in the last big regatta before the Olympic Sailing Competition are all achievable steps for every sailor, including Meech and Lilley who have their national selection confirmed.
For the rest, it is the final chance to test against the future Olympians and push for a Sailing World Cup medal.