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A descendant of Danish sailors, Brazil’s Torben Grael honoured his maritime roots at six editions of the Olympic Games, winning five medals.
Born in Sao Paulo of Danish descent, Torben Grael hailed from a rich sailing tradition. He was introduced to the water when he was just five, taken under the wing of his grandfather Preben Schmidt - one of the pioneers of Brazilian sailing - and his uncles, Erik and Axel Preben-Schmidt , who represented Brazil at the Olympic Games in 1968 ad 1972. They took him out on Aileen, a 6m class vessel, which had been used at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, by Denmark’s silver medal-winning crew of Herschend, Meulengracht and Thomsen. After his family relocated to Niteroi, opposite Rio de Janeiro in Guanabara Bay, Torben and his younger brother Lars began competing. Together they won the world junior title in the Snipe class in 1978, going on to lift the senior title in the same class in 1983 and 1987. The two brothers competed together for the best part of a decade, before deciding to go their separate ways (Lars would go on to win two Olympic bronze medals in the Snipe class in 1988 and 1996).
Grael made his Olympic debut at Los Angeles 1984, at the age of 24, when he competed with Ronaldo Senft and Daniel Adler in the Soling class. The trio won silver behind the USA. Four years later in Seoul he was back on Olympic waters, this time in the Star class with Nelson Falcao, and the pair claimed bronze. Grael then began a long partnership with Marcelo Ferreira in the Star. It would eventually develop into a fruitful association, but at Barcelona 1992, they could do no better than 11th place. Then came three successive podium finishes - gold at Atlanta 1996, bronze at Sydney 2000, and gold again at Athens 2004. Grael’s tally of five Olympic medals set a new record, though at London 2012 was equalled by his compatriot Robert Scheidt, and Great Britain’s Ben Ainslie.
Grael’s uncanny ability to get the most out of his vessel regardless of the weather conditions earned him the nickname of “Turbine”. Away from the Olympic Games, he competed in the Americas Cup on three occasions, either as tactician or a member of the afterguard. In 2000, he was part of the Italian Prada team that challenged Team New Zealand for the trophy, and in 2007 he was part of the Luna Rossa crew that lost the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup - the event to decide the identity of the challenger in the America’s Cup. He twice skippered crews in the the Volvo Ocean Race, navigating Brasil 1 to third place in 2005-2006 before winning the race in 2008-2009. Chosen to carry the flag for the Brazilian team at Athens 2004, Grael was named ISAF World Sailor of the Year in 2009, and, despite hailing from a country where football dominates, he is regarded as one of Brazil’s greatest sporting figures. He once said: “The boat isn’t important, it’s all about the knowledge of the sailor.” Grael certainly had enough to last him a lifetime.