June 2024, Articles

Sailing for a podium finish in Marseille

With a 10-strong sailing squad selected for the Olympic regatta in Marseille, two of the crews talk about their preparations and work with their HPSNZ Athlete Performance Support (APS) team ahead of the Games.

A quick look at two of the seven sailing crews heading for the Olympic waters could suggest the only two things they have in common are a love of being on the water and a dream to stand on the Games podium.

For the Kiwi 49er FX crew of Jo Aleh and Molly Meech it will bring their combined Olympic appearances to a staggering eight with three Games medals between them, while wind foiler Veerle ten Have will be making her Games debut at Paris 2024.

A closer look, however, reveals a very important common denominator for the successful lead into Paris 2024 – their shared HPSNZ Athlete Performance Support (APS) team.

Yachting has a strong, collaborative and shared approach to the support provided to the wider sailing programme, one which has resulted in some long standing relationships and very deep understanding of the needs of high performance sailors.

Jo, Molly and Veerle are supported by what can only be described as a passionate group of dedicated specialists – HPSNZ Physiologists Anna Skipper and Lucy Jacobs, Strength and Conditioning Coach Neil Yeates, Physio Mark Overington, Performance and Technique Analyst Alex Anastasiou, Doctor Craig Panther and Nutritionist Kelsey Paterson.

Different members of the APS team have travelled with the sailing crews as they competed in qualifying regattas, tested out the Olympic course and undertaken acclimatising training camps.

But whether home or away, the support team have a shared focus on getting their sailors to the start line in Marseille in the best health and best condition to give them the greatest chance of success.

As Jo puts it, this part of the campaign is about focussing on the sailing, staying injury free, fit and healthy.  And that’s where the APS team comes into its own.

When at home, the sailing team has three fixed sessions a week in the HPSNZ gym under the watchful eyes of S&C Neil, usually joined by Anna and Lucy, and often by Mark.

The APS team also comes together each Wednesday to review and plan out programmes and on Friday to get the all-important medical input from the health team, headed by Craig and Mark.

As the team’s physiologists, Anna and Lucy describe their role as being responsible for the fitness prescription of their sailors.

“We work primarily on land based cardio sessions with a critical component being the data capture through our Training Peak app which allows us to monitor and adjust programmes based on working within heart rate zones and individual physiology,” says Anna.

Lucy says there is always a balance between water and land based training and the very dynamic nature of a sport largely dependent on weather and water conditions means the APS team need to have the ability to change a scheduled session on the fly.

Neil, who works very closely with Anna and Lucy, says the training programmes for the three sailors are quite different and specific to their individual needs and roles.

“Both Jo and Molly are extremely experienced however their current roles on the boat are quite different,” says Neil.

“For example, in the crew role, Molly’s tasks are more physical – lowering and hoisting kites, having strong upper body pulling power, agility and speed to move laterally around the boat.  With Jo in her role at the helm we are focusing on gaining more movement fluidity in the boat.”

49er FX Olympic crew Jo Aleh and Molly Meech Credit: Sailing Energy / World Sailing. 11 August 2023.

The focus in the gym for windfoiler Veerle is on building her strength so she can maintain the requisite pumping demands of her board class.

“These subtle differences between the roles of each sailor require bespoke training programmes.”

Performance and Technique Analyst Alex has a role which is equally critical to performance and one in which he works closely with the sailors and with their coaches.

“Sailing success will come down to the ability to be excellent in all components of performance – starting, speed, decision making around the course, to name a few,” says Alex.

“My role is to help build a picture of these components, bringing to life what the coach has observed and the sailors have experienced through data, whether it is in a training or competition environment.

“Tactical and strategic decisions are a huge component in sailing where there is such an uncontrollable weather factor.  What won the race, what did we do versus what did our competitors do? Did decisions turn out to be the right ones?

“A few knots up or down the wind range can hugely impact how a sailor is required to sail their boat and it is important we and our sailors understand their strengths and weaknesses in the different wind and wave conditions. Marseille is a tricky venue and will require a sailor to be strong across a range of conditions to win.”

Alex sums up the challenge quite simply.  “Like all Olympic sports there are very fine margins and sailors have to be able to make decisions based on what they are seeing out on the racecourse”.

With so much time spent overseas, Veerle says the Training Peaks and Team Builder apps, along with WhatsApp for communications, are hugely important.  “We can still do our weekly rundown with our home-based support team, keep them updated on what we are doing, any injury niggles we have and they can feedback what adjustments we need to make.”

Jo, Molly and Veerle have nothing but praise for their APS team.

“They are totally cool,” says Jo.  “I’ve been with them through multiple campaigns which means we know each other really well and have developed good relationships with the whole support team.  And frankly, they often don’t get the thanks they deserve.”

As a rookie Olympic campaigner, Veerle says she feels totally supported and knows her best interests and goals are the team’s priority.

The sense of excitement and anticipation of all three sailors is palpable.  Despite their vast experience, Jo and Molly said seeing the Olympic flame arrive in Marseille was special.  “It really felt as though the whole of France stopped when the flame arrived on French soil.”

Olympic wind foiler Veerle ten Have Credit Sailing Energy