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Though several classes in the history of Olympic sailing have been categorised as “mixed”, none of them has actually seen a man and a woman share control of a boat until, that is, Rio 2016, where the spectacular Nacra 17 will make its debut as a truly mixed event.
The Nacra 17 is a catamaran with curved dagger boards and which rises from the surface of the water as soon as it picks up speed, almost seeming to fly as it does so, all of which makes it especially difficult to handle but no less attractive to a wide variety of yachtsmen and women.
Following its inclusion on the Rio 2016 programme, one couple in particular has excelled in the class: French tandem Marie Riou and Billy Besson, who have won the ISAF world title four times in a row since 2013.
Riou is a veteran of London 2012, where she teamed up with Claire Leroy and Elodie Bertrand to finish sixth in the women’s match racing discipline, which replaced the Yngling class.
Riou, who hails from Brittany, and the Tahitian-born Besson have been friends for many years and together make the perfect crew.
“We really complement each other,” said Riou, discussing the teamwork that has put them at the top of their class. “We’ve got confidence in each other too. We really trust each other, and we try to share roles on board. And then there’s the fact that we’re the same age, the same size and the same weight.”
The duo were so dominant at the Nacra 17 2016 World Championships, held in Clearwater (USA) in February, that they had sealed the title before the medal race, in which points count double, a stunning triumph that secured them their place in Rio.
Riou and Besson were every bit as dominant at the Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma de Mallorca in April, once again clinching victory with a day to spare and also picking up the award for the best performance at the whole regatta.
“What gives us the edge? It could be the experience we both have,” explained Riou. “Billy is the king of the catamaran, and I bring my knowledge of all the sailing classes I’ve competed in. When we’re on the same wavelength, we have that little bit extra than our rivals.”
“We are working towards the Rio Games, and every result is important, though at this stage there are more important things than your final placing in an event,” said Besson, speaking in Palma. “It’s more a question of how we’re sailing and trying to do the best job we can on board, day in day out. That’s what we’re looking to do. And though you can never achieve perfection, that’s what we’re striving for.”
Voted French yachtsman and woman of the year in 2015, they have every intention of continuing their quest for excellence in Guanabara Bay this coming August. “I am so proud at being able to represent France at the Rio Games, though we need to kick on and come up with a good performance,” explained Besson.
“It’s hard to take stock all the things Marie and I have done since the start of the Olympiad, because we’re in our element and we’re doing what we love and what we know,” he continued. “We’ve got a few months to go now before the Games start, and our objective is obviously to keep on pushing and to come away from Rio with the most beautiful medal.”
“The Olympic Games is the holy grail, the final phase of an Olympic project,” added Riou. “When we first came together, we knew why we’d been selected, though I didn’t know the boat, which made it hard to picture us being here today.
“After the first world title, we started to think it might be possible and then things just started coming together and time just went flying by. Now we’ve got four world titles and we’ve qualified for the Rio Olympics, though the story is not over yet.”