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The biggest opponent for top sailors, says Singapore coach Fernando Alegre, is time. Detailed preparations for Olympic sailors begin four years before the Games as athletes train to master the venue and course as well as fine-tuning their psychological and physical performances.
“Sailing is a very unique sport,” Fernando says, on the Singapore team’s last visit to Rio before returning at the end of July for the 2016 Games. “You have to spread out all that preparation in the four-year cycle. Getting to know the venue, the currents, the wind shifts, the different variations and the conditions because of the geography, is very important. You have to be constantly coming to a venue and trying to really study properly so you can have the right knowledge of the venue. It’s very complex, different from other sports.”
And it is the length of campaign that marks the step up from junior and youth sailing to senior sailing, he says. Overseeing the team for the 2014 Youth Olympics Games in Nanjing, Fernando coached young sailors Samantha Yom and Bernie Chin, who is now on the Olympic Pathway to compete for a place at Tokyo 2020.
“It was a really good experience for us,” he says. “One and a half years before, the Singapore sailing federation offered me the opportunity to coach the youth teams for the Games. The racing conditions were very difficult because it was a lake and we tried to prepare as well as we could to try to be ready for those conditions, especially on the mental side. You work on the same aspects, the only difference is that when you’re working with the senior Olympics, you have a lot more time because you prepare for four years while for a YOG, I don’t think any countries have a four-year campaign with such young athletes.”
The preparations paid off and Singapore won two sailing gold medals at the 2014 YOG. However, Rio 2016 came too soon for Bernie, Fernando says, as the young sailor does not yet have the weight to compete in the Laser class.
“He’s on the Pathway and I think he will be preparing himself to compete, maybe to have a chance in Tokyo,” the coach explains.“There are good sailors in Singapore on the Olympic Pathway in that class so he won’t have it easy but he’s a real prospect for Singapore sailing for 2020.”
The success of the youth programme has contributed to a growth in sailing in the country, which is sending its biggest ever contingent to Rio with competitors in seven of the 10 sailing classes. But Fernando has warned the course in Rio will require their best performance.
“It’s quite challenging and I think it will demand the best out of the sailors because we have four racing areas inside the Guanabara Bay, three outside in the open sea,” he explains. “You have different characteristics. Inside, you have flatter water, very difficult currents going in opposite directions and shifting winds while outside on the open sea courses, you have steadier wind but a lot stronger. You have big swell, rolling waves and the current is more uniform in the whole course. It requires the sailors to be very complete, very technical for the outside courses and be very smart and very tactical for the inside courses. It’s a really good venue.”
But he added that the preparations had gone to plan so far. The sailors are following a rigorous schedule including six meals a day, three hours of sailing daily and bi-weekly sessions with a sports psychologist.
“The Olympians are full time sailors so their job is to prepare themselves as well as they can,” he adds. “At the end, you cannot just be 60, 80 days before the Games trying to work on the mental aspects that you haven’t worked on, the technical aspects that you haven’t worked on.”
And when it comes to the Games themselves, Fernando believes they will be the springboard for greater success in the future.
“There are a lot of good, young talents coming through,” he says. “Singapore has been successful in the last 10 years in the junior classes and the youth classes so now the federation is working very hard in trying to convert those youth and junior results into Olympic results. It’s a process that takes a while. It’s a very big step. People will see that sailing is something that is happening very much at an Olympic level and the preparation could be even better for Tokyo and onwards.”