YOU’LL read more about Sally Pearson, the Boomers and our swimmers in the lead-up to Rio 2016, but when our Olympic bosses pencil in gold medals for next year’s Games there’s two names they write down first.
Mat Belcher and Will Ryan.
Belcher, a 32-year-old from the Gold Coast, and Ryan, 26, from Sydney, will compete in the Men’s 470 sailing event and look to continue Australia’s recent domination of the event.
They might not be household names but these two athletes deserve your respect — and your attention. Here’s seven things you probably didn’t know about these two golden boys.
THEY’RE UNBACKABLE FAVOURITES FOR GOLD IN RIO
As we said, if you’re looking for athletes to back at next year’s Olympics, Belcher and Ryan are your men. But don’t expect much of a return. These guys are very, very good at what they do and the bookies will know it.
Belcher has won the past five world championships, including the past two with Ryan, and is the reigning Olympic champion. He won gold in London with former partner Malcolm Page after entering the Games a $1.10 favourite.
Since replacing Page with the younger Ryan, the team hasn’t missed a beat. Is all that pressure a worry? Nope. “It’s almost second nature to be performing under that type of pressure,” Ryan says. “That’s what we train for … hopefully the other guys are scared.”
THEIR BOATS ARE NAMED AFTER NICOLE KIDMAN MOVIES
Page started this tradition in Beijing in 2008 when he named the boat he and former partner Nathan Wilmot sailed to gold Australia. In London it was Practical Magic and then at the 2014 World Championships it was Happy Feet (Kidman voiced one of the penguins).
Because of the difficulty in transporting the boats around the world for races, Belcher and Ryan have a fleet of boats — including Bewitched and Far and Away — across the globe. But they can’t tell you the name of the boat they’ll use in Rio because it hasn’t been launched yet.
THEY’VE BEEN TO RIO — AND THE WATER SMELLS
There’s been a lot of press about the water quality the sailors will have to compete in and for good reason. Ryan said there was definitely a “distinct smell” when they competed in a test event earlier this month. “The Marina itself has two sewerage outlets flowing directly into the Bay,” he said. “I think they put a gate on it for the week we’re there.”
To ensure they stay healthy, members of the Aussie sailing team have been taking Blackmores multivitamins. As for the event site itself, the conditions will be tricky. There’s actually seven courses — some in protected waters and others in open sea. It should make for even competition. At the test event there were nine teams in contention to win after six days of competition. But our boys won of course.
THEY KNOW THEIR SPORT CAN BE HARD TO WATCH
They know, they know, highlights from the sailing are never going to dominate your evening sports bulletin. But give the sport a chance when you’re tuning into next year’s Olympics.
“Sailing has always struggled as a sport because it can be quite boring, particularly to watch on TV,” Belcher said. “If there’s not much wind … we’re not travelling that fast and it’s really hard to say who is winning in the race because of the positions and the angles involved.
“It’s also difficult to explain to the viewer the types of decisions we’re making on-board. But it’s going to improve. It’s made a big step since London and we’re excited about some of the things Channel 7 are going to do next year.”
THEY’RE FITTER THAN YOU THINK
Sailing might not have a reputation as one of the most physically-demanding sports, but it should.
Belcher and Ryan are in constant motion during a race and will complete about 15 hours of race time over the seven days of competition in Rio.
“The energy we’re outputting is on par with some of the world’s top cyclists,” Ryan said. “We need to be quite skinny … and quite agile as well. Be able to respond quickly but also have the endurance to perform over an entire week.”
To keep fit, Ryan spends his spare time cycling, kitesurfing and rock-climbing. Belcher is a road warrior, planning to tackle a half marathon at the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival in a fortnight.
THE AUSSIE SAILING TEAM KNOWS TRANSITION
Australia is going for its third consecutive gold in the 470 class, having nailed a formula which deliver success. Every four years they swap out one member of the team for a younger, hungrier sailor to ensure they stay driven.
In Beijing it was Nathan Wilmot and Malcolm Page, in London it was Page and Belcher and now it’s Belcher and Ryan. “Malcolm said when he transitioned from his former partner to me he wanted a younger model — someone a bit younger, smarter and better-looking,” Belcher said. “I’ve done the same. I’m sure I’ll be chucked out when my time is done. It’s a great legacy we have.”
The constant throughout the years is master coach Victor Kovalenko, who is aptly nicknamed “The Medal Maker”. Kovalenko has been instructing Aussie sailors to “trust yourself and follow your dreams” for almost 20 years now and has a swag of medals to show for it. “He’s not only our coach but our mentor and a really good friend of ours. He gives everything for us,” Belcher said.
IT HASN’T ALL BEEN SMOOTH SAILING
At least for Belcher anyway. He started seriously chasing his Olympic dream back in 2000 after being given the honour (as a junior world champion in his sport) of carrying the Olympic flag at the closing ceremony in Sydney.
He worked his way to number one in the world ahead of Beijing only to see national selectors hand Australia’s sole berth to Page and partner Nathan Wilmot. Page and Wilmot had finished 12th at the 2004 Games but won the test event for Beijing and in what must have been one of the biggest selection calls in Australian Olympic history got the nod in 2008.
They validated the decision by winning gold, but it was a bitter pill to swallow for Belcher. “I was disappointed,” he said. “I spent eight years trying to get to the Olympics and got to world No. 1.
“I walked away from the sport for 12 months but during the games (where he worked as a commentator) I realised I wanted to keep going.” So he talked Page (who he says “was a little bit drunk at the time”) into continuing on to London and the rest is history.