When you’re standing on top of an Olympic podium, you’re in a place that hundreds and thousands, if not millions have dreamed of being.
To share the podium with one of your best mates and to experience the journey with your wife only sweetens the joy. This was the case for Australia’s Mat Belcher who sailed to gold with Malcolm Page in the Men’s 470 at London 2012 with his wife, Friederike, representing Germany in the Women’s 470.
Mat’s journey to the Olympic Games began at Sydney 2000 after he carried the International Olympic Committee flag to signify the closing of the Olympiad. Eight years later he paired up with Page and a year later he married Friederike as they shared the Olympic journey together.
“I remember speaking to Mal, just after [he won gold with Nathan Wilmot] when I was in Beijing watching him receive his medal. He said it’s one of the greatest things you’ll ever experience. I spent four years trying to feel that same feeling,” expressed Belcher. “We were on the podium, just about to get our gold medal and he asked me, ‘what do you think? Is it the greatest thing?’ I just smiled at him and thought wow, it’s unbelievable. To have that experience and friendship together is something you’ll never forget.
“For me it was very special that I had my wife there also competing at the Games. We did it together. It was 12 years and it took us a long time. We had a lot of failures along the way but to walk into the Opening and Closing Ceremony together as husband and wife was really special and was probably one of my highlights.”
Heading into the London 2012 Olympic Games, Belcher and Page were red hot favourites and many saw gold as a foregone conclusion in the Men’s 470 based on the Australians winning three consecutive world titles and entering the Games with seven straight regatta victories.
However, it was far from the case as Great Britain’s Luke Patience and Stu Bithell set about spoiling the party as they dominated the opening day of racing with a second and a first. The Australians were left battling in the middle of the pack and it was advantage to Great Britain.
A mesmerising series of series of races played out and it turned into a two-horse race, a battle between the old enemies, Great Britain versus Australia.
Belcher and Page took a four-point advantage over Patience and Bithell into the Medal Race and even though the Australians had a shaky start, it ended up being Belcher’s best Olympic race, “It was a pretty high pressure situation for us. We had a chance to lose the gold medal. We only had four points on the British team. We had a terrible start and put ourselves in a very difficult position.
“We were 15 seconds back off the line. It’s a pretty hard thing to simulate. A lot of teams try and train for that and you think that you’re prepared but until you’re actually in the moment you don’t know how you’ll react. Being in that situation and the way we did react was quite a good indicator that we were ready.”
The British crew held an early lead but the Australians chipped away on the first downwind to overtake them and from there, they never looked back.
“In that environment you make mistakes but we realised that it’s okay and we just stuck to our routine and rhythm. For us to have that composure and to adapt and realise the position we were in and stay focused and work together and to come back and finish second in that race and win gold was phenomenal.”
Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic (CRO) claimed the Medal Race win with the Australians following closely behind with Patience and Bithell in fourth.
Celebrations ensued and the rivalries created over the course of many years turned into overwhelming friendship and sportsmanship. The Australians and Britons were joined by bronze medallists Lucas Calabrese and Juan de la Fuente (ARG) in the water, each one showcasing diving skills even Matthew Mitcham would be proud of.
“To be able to share it with those guys, at that moment, achieving our dreams was great,” concluded Belcher. “They were ecstatic with their medals and to share that moment together is one thing we won’t get together again; it was pretty amazing.”
Belcher will once again be a red hot favourite at the next Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro. He will be joined by Will Ryan and the duo have established themselves as leading lights of the Men’s 470 fleet, winning three World Championships in the current quad.
– Daniel Smith/World Sailing