The women's skiff is a new class at the 2016 Olympics and competition for the Australian spot at Rio will be fierce.
Tess Lloyd and Caitlyn Elks were the best Australian performers at the 2014 Santander Worlds, finishing 11th, while Olympic silver medallist Olivia Price and crew Eliza Solly are the combination favoured by team management. Then there is 2008 Olympic 470 champion Tessa Parkinson with crew Chelsea Hall. They had flashes of brilliance in Santander, but came unstuck owing to lack of race practice.
Now there is a fourth option for the selectors. Haylee Outteridge, younger sister of Olympic 49er champion and America's Cup skipper Nathan Outteridge, has teamed with double rowing Olympian Sarah Cook and they have been working diligently on Lake Macquarie to make up for lost time.
Sarah Cook was originally aiming for Rio in the 470 with Tessa Parkinson's helm from 2008, Elise Rechichi. But Rechichi has taken time out from sailing to have her first baby, leaving Cook in search of a boat to sail. It appears she has found it with the talented Outteridge.
Cook has been fast-tracked by the Australian Sailing Team. In September 2012 she had never sat in a dinghy, but just nine months later she and Rechichi placed 8th at the 2013 470 Worlds.
She says that her abilities as an elite athlete in terms of skill acquisition, work ethic, boat feel and determination were a major factor in picking up the new discipline so quickly. But she also gives credit to the coaching staff at the AST.
“Undoubtedly the biggest factor was the amazing people I got to work with, including my team mate Elise Rechichi and Head Coach Victor Kovalenko. Not many people can say that they've had Sailing 101 from one of the world's greatest Olympic coaches, but I can.
“To then learn the 'gold medal standard' in everything I did from day one from Elise, meant that my progress was fast-tracked by about 15 years! I know I have a lot to learn in this incredible sport, but what I have managed to learn thus far and the skills I've developed have surpassed most people's expectations.
“I have also had a great mentor in Mal Page, and ongoing advice and help from Emmett Lazich, Nathan Outteridge, Mat Belcher, and my VIS coach Johnny Rodgers. Without such a diverse range of input and help I don't think any of this would have been possible.”
Cook says the challenge now is to translate what she has learned in the traditional-design 470 into the faster and tippier skiff.
“We're moving forward in leaps and bounds and I'm loving it,” she concludes.
Although Haylee Outteridge has unprecedented access to probably the greatest 49er sailor of all time – her brother Nathan – she says she has had to make her own way in the class.
“Nath has always been supportive in anything I do and so he is really keen to help me where he can. But due to all his other sailing commitments, he rarely spends any time at home so his direct help is pretty limited.
“The biggest way he has assisted me in my FX campaign is just general advice on managing time, people and money to allow me the space to focus on sailing. He also has a great appreciation for the importance of letting me grow as a sailor and the ability to make my own mistakes. It's such a great feeling knowing your family are in the background always supporting you,” she says.
While their competitors for the Australian spot in Rio spent the winter in Europe and experienced the testing conditions that Santander threw up, Outteridge was stuck at home searching for her perfect crew. Now that she and Cook have made the commitment to the Olympic dream, they have a lot of catching up to do.
“At the moment we're just focussing on the regattas over the Australian summer,” says Outteridge. “As we're only a new combination we're really keen to do some racing to gain a better insight and understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. We have a lot of work to do between now and Olympic selection but I know we're both up for the challenge.”
Been there before
Cook draws on her two previous Olympic campaigns for the knowledge of how to progress. “I think the critical thing for any Olympic campaign is that you focus on being the best, and everything is geared towards that. Although we're using the Australian summer to make assessments and projections about our future potential, it's not about results, but creating a good quality base from which we can build and develop.
“The fortunate thing for me is that I've been through this same process only two years ago when I first came to the sport, so this time around I know what to expect and can foresee some of the hurdles. It also means that I'm less likely to get frustrated when we do struggle at certain moments, as I know we'll find a way to work through the challenges.
“This time around I am obviously in a much better position as well because I know how to sail! When I learnt 470 I had never sailed in my life. This time I'm developing and extrapolating the skills I already have from 470 into the FX, and consequently it's progressing well.
“Haylee is fantastic to sail with, she's always cool and calm, and her boat handling skills and knowledge mean that I have a stable platform which lets me learn and develop quickly.
“I've been amazingly fortunate to have found another partnership which I believe has everything required to be a success. I think that focussing on the right areas and keeping the main thing the main thing will mean the outcome will take care of itself.”
Both women know the road to Rio will not be easy. But the determination of this pair of champions is unquestioned – they have the mental capacity to succeed.
Whether they have enough time to beat their formidable Australian competition for that single, coveted place on the team, only time will tell. But it is now a four-way battle, which can only be good for Australia's medal chances.
– Roger McMillan