In a finale fitting on the setting, the Rio 2016 Paralympic Sailing Competition came to a spectacular close with the medals decided in front of a sell-out crowd lining the shores of Flamengo Beach.
Racing on the Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) race course, onlookers were treated to a thrilling climax in which some medals were settled by just seconds.
After 11 races under the backdrop of Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer, the stakes were high for a chosen few sailors who had the opportunity to grab a Paralympic medal. But while some would feel the elation, some would inevitable miss out.
The final gold to be decided went to France's Damien Seguin who joined Australia's Two Person and Three Person teams who wrapped up the gold the previous day.
One Person Keelboat – 2.4 Norlin OD
France's Damien Seguin became a double Paralympic gold medallist when he crossed the line in fourth position in front of the only sailor that could mathematically beat him, London 2012 gold medallist, Great Britain's Helena Lucas.
Straight in to the mixed zone to speak to the waiting press, Seguin said in his usual cool, calm demeanor, “I'm just happy. I'm just happy as I have worked a lot since my fourth place in London 2012. I was sure I could do it, and I did.”
The French sailor never doubted his own talent and with a history of international titles to back it up, the confidence was well founded, “Of course I expecting to do it. I'm a competitor, so I always go for first place. My start to the regatta was not very good, but every day I improved my racing. I always say that the regatta is 11 races, not 10. And by the 11th race I got to first overall.”
Seguin's French charm and likeable manner will make him a popular winner, but for Seguin he also had some familiar faces watching on, people close to his heart, “I have an association in France for people with disabilities and they came to Rio this week. They were at the beach every day to support me. It was amazing. This association is for encouraging people with disabilities to go sailing.”
Hoping to inspire people with disabilities, Seguin sailed consistently high throughout the regatta with his lowest placed finish a sixth.
Another consistent sailor, Australia's Matt Bugg, won silver thanks to a bullet in the final race of the competition. That win leapfrogged Bugg in to the silver spot and dropped former champion Lucas in to bronze as she finished down the fleet in 15th.
Threatening Lucas' place on the podium was USA's Dee Smith. Any further up than the sixth place he crossed the line in and it could have a very anxious moment for the Briton. Luckily the points she had built up through the early race days stood her in good stead for another Paralympic medal.
Two Person Keelboat – SKUD18
Sailing in the SKUD18 fleet were the only sailors in history to defend a Paralympic title. That honour was bestowed on Australia's Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch with two races to spare in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Sailing Competition. Sailing on day five was just a victory lap. A victory lap they still finished second place in.
Fighting behind the dominant Aussies were John McRoberts and Jackie Gay (CAN), Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell (GBR) and Monika Gibes and Piotr Cichocki (POL).
The Polish world champions approached the start line knowing they had to put boats between themselves and both the Canadian and Great British teams. They sailed perfectly to take the bullet in the final race, but with only the Australian gold medallists behind, it was not to be for Gibes and Cichocki. They had finished fourth overall.
McRoberts and Gay had the advantage over their British rivals on the overnight leaderboard. But from the start of the race, they fell behind. In the latter stages of the race they came back alongside the British for a wrestling match, which also included a potential Italian spanner in the works.
The to-ing and fro-ing between the three teams continued right to the end. Canada crossed in third for silver. With the Polish team taking the bullet, Great Britain had to stay ahead of the battling Italians to take the fourth. They did, and with that the bronze medal.
Knowing that they had the silver medal, McRobert and Gay had time to reflect on the stress leading up to the Games which had their participation in doubt, “We sailed very well and came in well rested. Jackie had a small injury beforehand and there was a time where we were unsure what the future would hold,” explained Mc Roberts.
Gay interuppted, “I only got signed off to sail the day before the practice race at 1o'clock. Until then we weren't sure. I fell off the boat and hit the trailer with my head quite badly.”
McRoberts continued, “Jackie's a real trooper. She's got real pain threshold so when she says she's in pain, she's in major pain. She was in major pain. Thanks to the Canadian team, they took great care of us. They were a blessing.”
The threat of missing out may have been a blessing in disguise for the Canadians. It changed their attitude to the whole competition, “We had a really good start,” began McRoberts, “Normally I can't eat or sleep but that wasn't the case. I put myself into the head space that I was going to enjoy the experience. A lot of times I put a lot of pressure on myself and that doesn't really do anything for me except negative thoughts. Sailing is a sport where you need to be loosey goosey and it's all about feel.
“Something special happened to us. We blessed Cristo [Christ the Redeemer] every day, had our patience hats on and communicated well.”
From Canadian belief to Great British relief. Bronze medallist Rickham said, “We are relieved. It's been a long, very hard week for us. We came here hoping to contest for the gold but that slipped away quite quickly. We're so happy to get a medal. It was close to being silver but the Sugarloaf course just didn't play out for us. John [McRoberts] and Jackie [Gay] sailed well and really deserved that medal. We're just elated. It's great to be able to come away from our second Games with another medal.”
Three Person Keelboat – Sonar
With the gold wrapped up in the Sonar by the Australian team of Colin Harrison, Russell Boaden and Jonathan Harris with a race to spare, it was down to the battle for silver and bronze.
Mathematically there were still quite a few teams left in the fight, but USA and Canada, sitting in second and third respectively, had the advantage before the final race got underway. That advantage paid dividends in the end as Alphonsus Doerr, Hugh Freund and Bradley Kendell (USA) confirmed silver with Paul Tingley, Logan Campbell and Scott Lutes (CAN) taking bronze, but only just.
USA set their stall out early and headed for the top end of the fleet, they knew where they needed to be. At the half way point they hit the front, and they stayed there to claim a race win and the silver medal.
Kendall will take to the podium with his teammates, but he had to endure a restless night as he knew the pressure was on, “Not much sleep last night, not much sleep. Woke up in the middle of the night and certainly started thinking about the race and how we were going to get out there and manage it and what we had to do. We wanted to win that race and go out in style and that's what we do. But not much sleep.
Freund bounced in with enthusiasm, “I slept great last night and woke up early and did some yoga.” “Good for you,” said Kendall. The sleep patterns may be different but the collective result was the same.
Claiming the 2016 Para World Sailing Championships earlier in the year had given the Americans the experience to call upon when faced with a similar final race situation, “We went into today knowing we'd had one rough day and four pretty good ones and we were in the same position we were in before the world championship with everything to play for. We knew if we sailed the boat the way the three of us know how to, everything would work out. It was really good execution from every person on the team.”
Race execution paid, but there was also a little help from another source as Kendall called in an old 'family favour', “I'm half a New Zealander, my dad was from there. The Kiwis sort of owed us a favour from the other day. They really fought with us at the end. They weren't giving us too much. We knew we had to go straight to the finish line as fast as we could and we were still working on sail trim on the reach. That's what it was all about.”
New Zealand's Richard Dodson, Andrew May and Chris Sharp rounded the first mark back in eighth position, but from there they charged to the front to worry the Canadians. The Kiwis pushed USA right to the finish but missed out on the bullet by just one second.
Further back the Canadians weren't making life easy for themselves. From the start they fell to the back and had to pick off a few boats and make their way through the field in the hunt for a medal.
USA had beaten New Zealand to first by one second and Canada eventually pipped France by one second to get seventh. That collective two seconds had shaped the medal podium as Canada and New Zealand where now tied on overall points. The Canadians won on a countback thanks to two race wins to the New Zealanders one.
For Campbell, it was all a bit too close for comfort, “We were unsure on the results and it probably took three or four minutes to find out where we finished, but we didn't know until our coach told us. We knew it was tight and when racing was done it was a pressure release.”
Teammate Lutes summed up for the team what the being on the podium means to them, with a traditional culinary reference, “It's a treat, it's a treat,” he chuckled. “We love racing and that's why we do it. No matter what, happy to be here but on a cake, icing is nice and this is the icing on the cake.”
– Richard Aspland – World Sailing
*** apologies about the photos our upload isn't working. I will update them as soon as possible.