Hi Tom, thanks for your time. At the 2008 Olympics, Australia had no mens windsurfer representative so me and my friends were going for you. That was a amazing victory!
Dean Barker and Chris Dickson went to the same school as you, that's pretty remarkable, was there anything about your schooling? Or was there anything about your upbringing, did your parents have any particular philosophies that contributed to your later successes? I now have four kids of my own.
I don’t know if there was anything about my high school that bred sailors in particular, but it was a great school. We had an amazing headmaster who was passionate about success and excellence, and I had a number of very good teachers. The unique thing about the school (at that time at least) was that they ran an accelerate program so the top 10% or so of students were allowed to study a year ahead. This made school much more challenging and allowed me to get out of there a year early and go windsurfing!
More generally, my parents have always been extremely supportive and motivating. From very young they always insisted that they didn’t mind what I chose to do, as long as I did it to the best of my ability. They would both come to sailing every weekend to support me, and devoted a lot of time to making sure I had the best opportunities and support that they could give me. They also encouraged me to work hard in other areas - I played the violin for 10 years, and school was very important. In the end, it was my performance at school that kicked off my professional windsurfing career. My parents suggested that, if I got As in my final year of high school (studying a year ahead) I could take the next year (that should have been my final year) to focus on my sailing. Once that happened I didn’t look back, and ended up sailing professionally for the next ten years.
Wow that's interesting, I knew you where academic having done Law at Uni and it sounds like you had many options straight after school. Sailing with the government funded Team New Zealand are all held in high regard in NZ, up there with the All Blacks right? I'm glad you pursued windsurfing we are richer for it.
I remember Brendan Todd (5th Atlanta and AUS coach) telling me, 'Olympics is a race of time and money and the most important thing been time, everybody gets the same time'. Finishing school early I think probably benefit you greatly, 2002 you where World Youth Champion and two years later you where at the Olympics in Athens where you needed the experience to later win the gold at the 2008 Olympics. That is a very quick rise to the top.
Just staying on school, you speak different languages right? It can be hard for Aussie and NZ kids to hear different languages. Did you do languages at school and was that a conscience decision to help with management logistics etc as you would need as a international sailor later. At what age did you make Olympic Sailing your goal?
Olympic sailing was a big goal for me from the moment I started sailing. I started at age 8 and straight away knew that I wanted to be a professional sailor one day. I used to give my parents written proposals outlining all the reasons why they should let me leave school and become a full-time sailor!
When I was around 11 or 12 my mum helped me make a big wall chart outlining my sailing goals. That was in 1995 or ’96. The chart went all the way through to Olympic gold in 2008. My parents found it in their attic by chance after 2008 when they were cleaning out, and it was really interesting - I had achieved almost all of the goals that I had written down when I was 11, and pretty much at the times set out in the chart.
Language acquisition happened more or less by accident. I learned French in high school, and it happened that in my first year of full-time sailing the youth Worlds and Europeans were in France, so I got plenty of opportunities to practise. I then did some training with French sailors in New Caledonia and for awhile my French got fairly good… In 2002 I started training with Ricardo Santos from Brazil, and picked up Portuguese by spending lots of time in Brazil. Then in 2003 I broke my ankle just before I was supposed to go to Brazil, and had to take 4 months off sailing. The next big event was set to be in Spain, so I hired a Spanish teacher to come to my home and teach me for a couple of months. Now I speak Spanish and Portuguese more or less fluently, and still remember a bit of French
Windsurfing has the added complexity of extreme fitness over the other Olympic classes. My friend from my Moth sailing days, Emmett Lazich was coaching the 49ers at the Sydney Olympics, he said jokingly to me, 'we would look over at the windsurfing guys in the compound and say, WOW those guys look like athletes'. He was coaching Finland at that time and crew commented to Emmett on how he was feeling tired and it was a struggle to clean his teeth this one morning. Later that day the Fins took the gold. I got the feeling from Emmett the dingys and the windsurfers where two different species back then!
You have some specific philosophies on diet and on shore training. I heard you like to cook everything? And you commented the pumping power comes from the legs so therefore cycling is beneficial. Nowadays everybody seems to cross train on bikes. For me there was a shift after you won in China. Even with the dingys I have noticed change. If you look at Tom Slingsby on how he sails the Laser or Ben Anslie sailing the fin you can see the strength and fitness that is now required. I accredit this new level of sailing to the legacy of your gold medal in China. Well that's how I see it anyway.
Can you tell me about your diet and training rides?
As a young athlete I used to have a few problems staying healthy - I’d often get sick after a hard training block or a regatta. I experimented with an Ayurvedic diet for awhile, and it seemed to work for me. That was pretty simple and just involved avoiding certain types of foods that supposedly didn’t suit my constitution. In theory I was supposed to cook food rather than eating things raw. I didn’t follow it religiously, but at times when I was feeling a bit fragile during really hard training I’d make a bit more effort. In the end though, the body is pretty adaptable and can handle most things you throw at it, so I believe the important thing is to eat a balanced diet and not stress too much about the details. I think that being too picky about food is probably worse than eating the odd unhealthy meal - the added stress of trying to make everything perfect outweighs the nutritional benefits!
After my 2004 campaign I started to take the physical side of the sport more seriously. That came as a result of a couple of factors. Firstly, we had some enforced downtime during the changeover from Mistral to RS:X equipment and I spent that time getting into cycling. Through that, I met a bunch of people who had a big impact on my approach to sport - I learned from triathletes and cyclists how to train like a real athlete. The other main factor was a conversation with my dad in late 2004, in which he encouraged me to plan ahead and work out what I needed to do to make sure I would win in 2008. As we knew that Qingdao was likely to be a light air event, fitness was obviously going to be a big factor. So from then I set out to become the strongest athlete in the fleet. I was able to draw on the expertise of the athletes and coaches that I’d met.
Making myself a stronger athlete appealed to me quite a lot because, unlike most aspects of sailing, it’s something that you can control 100%. That gave me a lot of comfort, because I was able to give myself such an advantage that I could almost always work my way through the fleet after a bad wind shift. It took a lot of the uncertainty out of racing in light wind. It also gave me the confidence to sail conservatively and limit risk - I knew that as long as I was in the same vicinity as the other top guys in light wind, I could beat them by pumping harder.
I like what you say about diet. I sometimes get into calorie counting and find it gets too hard and stressful so I will take that approach on board.
I was going to ask about equipment next but you got me thinking about race 10 in China.
As I understand the light land breeze shifted hugely. Some of your competitors thought the only way past you was to separate big time on the other side of the course and pray, they got lucky. Been the last race before the medal race and the fact you had no bad results you decided to drop this race. Is that what happened?
Could or should have the race committee cancelled race 10 in 2008? And was this race a blessing in disguise as you got to rest a bit? Regatta Strategy is interesting to me.
Haha, yes I remember that race clearly! There was a big wind shift. I don’t think the others were consciously trying to go the opposite way to me. I think I just made a mistake… our weather guy suggested the breeze was going to go hard left, so I set up on the left hand side of the line, and got totally caught out when it shifted right. I had a good idea of the points, and worked out that in order to make any difference to the final result I would have had to come back to something better than 6th (my discard was a 7th). From the position I was in that would have been a lot of work, if not impossible, so I decided to save the effort for the medal race.
I’m not sure the race should have been abandoned. It was a big shift but that’s sailing. It was probably near the limit of what’s ok, but I’ve been on the happy side of those calls before too so can’t really complain!
A lot of people get into windsurfing because it is affordable. Is Olympic windsurfing affordable as much as the young guys perceive it, gear and travel?
Jessica Crisp believes it is important to test as much gear as you can whereas Lars Kleppich is more about you get what you're given.
Obviously at the Olympic games you get given gear, but to get to the Olympics you have to qualify your nation and be the best in your own country. You also have to keep proving yourself to get government funding. All this on your own gear or hopefully gear supplied by your nations federation.
Nick Dempsey said he wasn't expecting a great result at the 2011 ISAF worlds in Perth as he would be chartering his gear in Australia.
I heard that at Lake Garda a container arrived full of your gear and all the masts fins etc where catalog and measured? And I heard in Victoria that when the class changed the sail design you rang SHQ and bought all remaining stock and freighted it to NZ?
So if any of that is true I am guessing Jessica's take on it is correct?
Is there much variance in the gear? And if a young sailors goal was to make the gold fleet at the worlds what should he or shes budget be roughly for travel and gear? Starting out you don't really get any funding.
Yes, equipment is very important. RS:X is supposedly one-design, but there are very big variations in sails, boards, fins and masts. In order to have any chance of doing well in big events you have to be really on top of your equipment program. The difference between a good and bad set of gear is huge - if you are capable of winning the Worlds on good equipment, you would probably finish outside the top 20 using bad kit. Obviously that’s not an ideal situation, but there’s nothing to do about it - if you want to be successful you just have to accept that equipment is a factor and play the game accordingly. In the end it pretty much evens out amongst the top sailors (at least the top 10 or so) because everyone is organised and well funded. But it is tough for developing countries who don’t have the expertise or money to buy a whole bunch of equipment at one time and test it. I think the cost of equipment each year for a top sailor would be in the region of $20-30k.
I think it’s great that the Olympics is sailed on supplied gear. I think it neutralises the advantage that the well-funded sailors have, and statistically it’s quite unlikely that one sailor will end up with all good gear - the chances of getting a good sail, good mast, good board and good fin are quite minimal. We found in China that everyone’s speed was pretty similar, and nobody was really faster or slower than they should have been.
The stories you’ve heard are a bit exaggerated. I didn’t go to Garda with a container, but I did have plenty of kit there. I did buy a few sails from SHQ as insurance in case the new models turned out to be slow. My approach was to buy as much equipment as possible at one time, rather than drip-feeding. I would set aside a month or so for testing, and rank all the gear. I could then allocate the fastest kit to the most important competitions, and keep the average- and slow gear for training. Olympic year is something a bit different - as the Olympics is sailed on supplied equipment it’s important to spend as much time as possible in the buildup using average gear. After I won the Worlds in January of 2008, I sold all of my fast kit (so that I wouldn’t be tempted to use it!) and spent the rest of the time until the Olympics training and racing on really slow gear. It was often really hard as I was getting smashed by guys who I would normally run circles around. In the end it was great though. I learned how to cope with slow gear, and worked out all the different tricks to making crap equipment go ok. When we picked up our supplied gear at the Games, my training partners were all complaining that the gear felt terrible, whereas I found mine awesome and immediately got comfortable.
I suppose that both Jess and Lars are right in their own way. Lars’ approach is great for performing on supplied equipment, whereas Jessica’s way is likely to be more successful for events where you can bring your own gear.
It is tough for young sailors to get into Olympic sailing now as it is pretty expensive. Pretty much the only way is to rely on support from parents early on, and work really hard to get some results to qualify for national team funding. I was very lucky in that way - my parents were always incredibly supportive, and I had the great fortune to get a sponsor, Temperzone, in my first year of competition who paid all my expenses and stayed with me for my whole career. NZ is a small country, and the reality is that there just isn’t that much money to pump into sport - there are real social issues that are much more worthy of government money! High Performance Sport NZ have made the very smart choice to focus all of their resources on athletes/classes with realistic medal potential, which probably comes at the expense of depth and fleet size, but ensures that NZ punches well above its weight internationally. I think it’s also really important to realise that being an athlete is a huge privilege. Nobody owes us money to travel around the world sailing, so I don’t think that it’s within anybody’s rights to complain about a lack of support.
So interesting! I have to ask another question about equipment before I ask about the 2008 Medal Race.
Before Windsurfing was temporarily dropped from the Olympics the class decided not to update the equipment. I think this was a mistake. I feel the gear was rushed onto the market and there are some design issues with the RSX. For instance everybody has the rear strap all the way forward and often you see the sailors ankle on the rail further forward again. The rear mast track holes aren't used at all particularly for the men. The boards aren't great at pointing unwind. I do like the Hybrid concept because you need the Longboard and the Formula skills and then all the added complexity of that.
For me the gear should be regularly be tweaked or updated at least every 4 years. Otherwise one day if it remains in the Olympics it will end up outdated like the Finn or 470. Just a side note and I shouldn't say because Australia is good at winning the 470 medals but why is that class in the Olympics when we now have the men and womens 49er? I would get rid of the 470 for the Kites.
Just my thoughts, what do you think about the Windsurfing equipment?
And where you absolutely shocked like me when windsurfing was dropped from the Olympic program?
Yeah, the RS:X isn’t the best equipment, but in the end it’s not that important. It would be more fun to sail on decent gear, but the flipside of doing regular updates is that the old gear becomes obsolete. At least now there is plenty of cheap equipment around for youths to use. I agree that the equipment should be lighter though - there is no excuse for a board to weigh 20kg, especially when the Mistral was much lighter.
I also don’t get too bothered about what classes race at the Olympics. You can make a pretty good argument that 470s and Finns are lame boats and not fit for Olympic competition, but on the other hand you can make the same argument about sailing/windsurfing on the whole - obviously we can’t claim that our sport is as good/hard as the “core” Olympic sports like athletics, swimming etc. Perhaps we’re lucky just to be there at all! I do think that kiting should get in there at some point, whether in the place of windsurfing or not. But that will require some good planning to overcome the logistical issues - kites couldn’t race out of most of the Olympic venues I’ve seen.
Medal Race 2008 - Psychology
We say there is four main things in racing - boat handling, boat speed, tactics and strategy. Emmett who is coaching the successful Aussie 49ers these days told me they also have added Psychology. He says at the top level everybody has boat handling and everybody knows the tactics and strategies more or less. He said they work on boat speed because if you have to duck a transom that can have a knock on effect and next thing your mid fleet and the other thing is Psychology!
Brendan Todd told me a story about the Australian Olympic trials for Atlanta in 1996. They where in Israel and it came done to the last race between Brendan and Lars. Lars firstly took to the water without his harness and had to sail back. Brendan said it was at this moment that he just knew he had won, he just knew it!
After your conversation with Dad in 2004 where you decided to be the strongest fastest and given that the medal race was going to be extremely physical given the light and choppy conditions did you just know it? To be fair you where equal with Julien Bontemps and Nick Dempsey who are both phenomenal sailors so it was never going to be a walk in the park.
Can you tell me what you where thinking about that day from morning till night? And during the race, your start on port tack etc?
And also can you make any comment about Shahar Zubari's performance that day?
Yes I suppose that psychology is important. I've never thought about it too much - I've found that as long as I know I'm prepared I am able to forget about the things I can't control and just focus on my own job.
I was pretty confident going into the medal race in China. But of course I was super nervous. I only slept a couple of hours the night before and struggled to eat breakfast that morning. I think that's normal in that situation.
Before the race I saw nick, shahar and julien. Shahar was really excited and happy and I figured he was up for a big race. I could tell that Julien and nick were shitting themselves and I guessed they would struggle. I took a lot of encouragement from seeing those two - I could tell that they were in a lot worse shape than me!
For the race itself I just tried to sail a normal race and not get caught up following the others. I got a good shift out the right near the top mark and after that just had to be conservative and cover. I let shahar past as he was a few points back so wasn't an immediate concern.
In the end though I definitely realise that the medal could easily have gone another way and I could have come 2nd, 3rd or 4th. Sailing is a bit of a minefield sometimes so I do feel lucky that it worked out in my favour.
I sometimes get a bit of anxiety before a bit race and think what am i doing this for? I don't need to be doing this anymore?
After 2008 you continued on with the next Olympic cycle. During this time you had a operation on your hip. Was that a overuse injury? I feel I'm pretty determine but to be honest I cant imagine it, I reckon I would have stopped at this stage. I saw you in 2011 Perth get 6th place only 5 guys in front of you. JP Tobin just 1 place in front.
What was the 2012 trials like for you?
After 2008 I wasn’t immediately sure whether I would continue sailing. I felt that I needed a break as I’d worked very hard for the three years leading up to China. In the end I decided to do another campaign, but first to take a year off to start my law degree. I had been getting a bit worried that by carrying on sailing for too long I would miss out on opportunities for a post-sport career.
My campaign for 2012 was not successful. It was a very interesting process. I approached the campaign by debriefing thoroughly with my support team on all the strengths and weaknesses of my 2008 effort. In particular, it was obvious that my hard work and professionalism had been key to my success in 2008. So basically my approach to 2012 was to work even harder and be even more professional than before. Unfortunately, I overlooked the real strength of my 2008 campaign, which was the amazing team of people who helped me and the regular critique and feedback from those people, which always kept things fresh and innovative. I think that I (and probably also the people around me) thought that we had it pretty much nailed and all we had to do was execute the same things again. When I started sailing again in 2010 it initially went pretty well, but then went downhill. I found myself struggling for speed in the breeze as the other top sailors had moved up a level. I eventually realised what had happened and set about rebuilding my technique in 2011, but just didn’t give myself enough time to really get comfortable with the new sailing style before the 2011 Worlds. I also found that I lacked a bit of intuition or “x-factor” in my sailing, which may have just reflected the fact that I wasn’t enjoying sailing as much as before. Things were suddenly very hard - I struggled to finish 6th in the 2010 and 2011 Worlds, which was a big change from 2007 and 2008, in which I’d been able to win everything I wanted.
The hip injury was a bit of a setback, but insignificant compared to the other issues. I had a fairly common genetic defect (the top of my femur was slightly the wrong shape), which developed into an overuse injury as the femur was damaging the cartilage in my hip socket. It was more of an inconvenience than anything - for a year or two I would wake up briefly a couple of times each night because of pain, and would be a bit stiff when warming into training, but once I got into a session I never really felt it. The surgery in mid-2011 was very successful, and I only had to stop sailing for 6 weeks in a period in which I would have taken a break anyway.
The upshot of all of this was that I didn’t win the selection trials and didn’t give myself the chance to compete in Weymouth. It is always a shame to miss out on achieving a goal, but I learned heaps from the process. It also gave me the chance to go back to uni in 2012, and I’ve now finished my law degree.
Are you concentrating fully on your Law career now? Did your windsurfing help yon in any way with doing Law?
I remember sitting and chatting with Lars one day a few years ago and saying to him lets go sailing one day. He looked back starred me in the eye and said sternly," I retired in 2004". Arrh I was speechless! For me windsurfing is the best way to go sailing, you get so much feel through your hands and feet. Pulling on the sail and pushing on the fin. The uni joint in all its simplicity is the key to making this the best way to get fitness vitamin D and enjoyment!
Are you sailing much these days? Or is it different for guys like you and Lars who have been on the top of the sport?
I'm with Larsy on this one! I haven't sailed for fun since I stopped competing. Windsurfing is a fantastic sport but I've done too much of it! For awhile after stopping I was a bit allergic to sport in general, but last year I allowed myself to be talked into running a marathon and recently I've gotten into surfski paddling, which has been great fun.
Since I stopped sailing I've been concentrating on law. Uni has been super rewarding and I've loved studying. It's gone pretty well - this year I published a paper in one of the top UK commercial law journals, which was really cool - this journal only publishes 15-20 papers per year and most contributors are either judges or full-time academics.
I'm not sure whether windsurfing specifically has helped with study, but definitely I think it helps to be a bit older at uni- it's easier to focus and get the work done when necessary.
I'll start working in February at a firm in Auckland. I've also been doing some coaching in the uni holidays (uni is a pretty cruisy lifestyle and classes only run for about six months per year), and now I'm head coach of the Chinese national team. I'll keep doing that part time until the Olympics - the firm has been super helpful and given me a lot of flexibility to pursue the coaching alongside work.
Congratulations Tom on a incredible career in windsurfing and I reckon you and your Chinese team will be force in Rio. Good luck for your next phase in life as a lawyer. I bet your 8 year old self would be very happy and proud.
It is nice to see the Aussie and New Zealand camaraderie.
I love how Barbara Kendall helped Jessica Crisp at the last Olympics and it was great to see the most successful 49er teams in the world AUS and NZ train together and help each other. I hope our nations can continue that spirit into the future.
I reckon you could help us with policy at Yachting Australia?
With the mens fleet we have or did have a bunch of guys close to or in the gold fleet at world championships. Interest has waned and young guys who may want to start out now are worried by the time they are ready it will be dropped again from the Olympic program. That's a problem I don't know how to fix.
For me, I would have sent Michael Lancey or Steve Allen to the games, you just never know how they would have gone. People would ask themselves if they wont send Steve Allen (world formula champ) why would they send me. How it is now you have to be a sure medal chance or top ten in the world! There is just so much depth in the mens fleet and the physical side for most people takes a lot of realization and time. I think if our sailors can qualify the nation, in other words be at Olympic standard which we can do then we should have trials and send our best guy. With this policy all of a sudden a heap of guys will feel its achievable to get to the Olympic games and try out. With a group pushing we will get momentum and skills in the fleet will go up and then you just never know!! Its a rebuilding policy.
Thanks for your time Tom. All the best.
The policy thing is a hard one. We have more or less the same approach in nz- limited resources means that only sailors in the top 10 in the world get full support, and you have to be a medal prospect in order to be selected for the Olympics. I think it makes sense in nz, as otherwise money would be spread too thinly.
Of course in a perfect world there would be enough money to fund campaigns for everyone, but I reckon we have a lot of poor people to feed and house first, and a lot of social issues to deal with before athletes get a legitimate right to complain about not getting paid enough to cruise around the world.