The London 2012 Olympics started badly for Australia when the swimming team, usually the source of so many medals, failed to fire. With just a single win in the women's 4 x 100m relay, the first week passed without an individual Australian claiming a title.
Step up Thomas Slingby. The feisty redhead from Gosford was aiming for redemption and had publicly stated that nothing short of a Gold would do.
Ranked World #1 going into the previous Games, Slingsby had bombed in Beijing, finishing in 22nd place after absolutely nothing went right. He toyed with retirement but decided instead to prove the knockers wrong.
Working on every aspect of his technique, he had changed the way the Laser was sailed. Superbly fit, both mentally and physically, he appeared to be able to pick up his boat and throw it over the waves going to windward. Downwind he worked like a Finn sailor, throwing himself from side to side and flipping the sail through a gybe with superhuman stregth.
His starts were so dynamic and his boat speed so great that no-one wanted to start next to him, for fear they would be gassed on the first beat. This allowed Slingsby to start mid-line unencumbered and fulfill the dread of his competitors – that he would disappear in clear air, sailing faster and higher.
Coming into London he was undefeated at the Weymouth venue and had decimated the fleet at the 2011 Perth Worlds, winning the medal race by a staggering 200 metres. But would the Olympic curse strike again?
The answer was an emphatic “NO!”. Although Pavlos Contides of Cyprus would lead early, Slingsby was never worried and by the medal race he held a 14 point lead, needing only to finish seventh or higher or to prevent Contides being in the first three.
After watching Ben Ainslie almost lose Gold in the Finn and fellow Brits Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson actually lose it in the Star owing to wind holes on the Nothe medal race course, Slingsby chose the latter approach. Knowing that Contides was guaranteed the Silver, his country's first ever Olympic medal, Slingsby put a press on the Cypriot and did what he had to do to fulfill his childhood dream. He finished ninth with Contides tenth, and that elusive medal was around his neck
“Good luck telling me there's someone happier than me in the world right now,” was how he described the feeling.
Outteridge and Jensen
The first people to congratulate Slingsby, as he lay in the water after crossing the finish and deliberately capsizing his Laser, were his great mates Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen who swooped acoss the course on their way to the 49er start.
They, too, had dominated their class in the lead-up to the Games after Outteridge had also suffered disappointment in Beijing. Heading for the finish with the Gold medal in his grasp, he dropped the boat and three crews swept past to deny him any medal at all.
Never one to get emotional, he said of the loss, “It's only a sailing race. I'll win the next one.”
Reunited with boyhood friend from the tiny Lake Macquarie town of Wangi Wangi, Iain “Goobs” Jensen, Outteridge had used his unique natural talent to good effect in the previous four years and the pair was unbackable favourites for Gold.
Fulfilling their promise, they had the Olympic title before the medal race was even sailed. Holding an unsurmountable lead over their training partners Peter Burling and Blair Tuke of New Zealand, who in turn had the Silver won with a day to spare, both boats kept out of the way of the battle for bronze and simply sailed around the course to victory.
The Medal Maker
The third of Australia's “dead certs” going into London 2012 was defending champion Malcolm Page and his new helm, Mathew Belcher in the 470. Coached by the Medal Maker, Victor Kovalenko, their lead-up had been flawless and like their Laser and 49er team mates, they held a significant phsychological advantage over the rest of the fleet. None would admit it but they probably all knew that they were sailing for Silver.
However, Olympic nerves got the better of Belcher in the first race and he hit a mark and was called for a port/starboard cross, causing penalty turns and an uncharacteristic high score on the first day.
“We made schoolboy errors out there today,” said Malcolm Page, sharing in the blame. “We're better than that and tomorrow we will go out and prove it.”
Prove it they did and by the end of the 10 race qualifying series they held a four point lead over the British crew, who needed to put another boat between them and the Aussies if they were to win Gold.
“All the pressure's on them, they're the defending champions,” claimed British helm Luke Patience after the final qualifying race.
“Well, they would have to say that,” responded Page when told of the comment, “but I'd rather be us.”
There was a brief moment at the top mark when the British led and had another boat between them and the Aussies, but the phenomenal downwind speed for which they were famous saw the positions reversed by the bottom gate. From there the Aussies simply defended their lead and won the Gold at a canter.
Too Young To Know
The Australian Sailing Team's goal going into London 2012 was three Gold and one “other”. But it wasn't until the final event was decided that the “other” came to pass.
The youngest team in the Women's Match Racing, making its one and only Olympic appearance, the Australian team of Olivia Price, Nina Curtis and Lucinda Whitty were up against world champions and other crews with many more years experience than them.
However, they seemed not to care. It was almost as though they were too young to know that they shouldn't be able to beat such class.
Going through the preliminaries almost unbeaten, one by one they ticked off wins over more fancied opponents. Only in the final, when Price was washed out of the boat by a wave in the third race, did the wheels finally fall off. A few quick swimming strokes and a boost back into the boat by Curtis, and they were off in pursuit of their Spanish opponents.
Athough they were able to level the scores at 2-2 in the next race, sadly they weren't able to take the last and had to settle for Silver.
With other sports failing to fire, sailing saved Australia's Olympic reputation at London 2012. Given no exposure in the early stages of competition, once Slingsby won the first individual Gold of the Games for his country the Aussie press descended on Weymouth.
Most knew nothing about sailing and the queue at one stage was three deep at my desk in the media centre, with mainstream journos desperate to check facts about this weird sport they didn;t understand.
Not only was the sailing a success, but so was the social side. More than 30 friends and family of Nathan and Goobs had travelled from Wangi Wangi alone. The AST had secured a base for supporters at the Cove House Inn, a short walk from the sailing centre, and celebrations continued well into the night.
With three Gold and a Silver, Tom Slingsby, Nathan Outteridge, Iain Jensen, Mat Belcher, Mal Page, Olivia Price, Nina Curtis and Lucinda Whitty had set the bar even higher than Sydney 2000 or Beijing 2008. This was Australian Sailing's golden Games.
- Roger McMillan