Women sailors land stunning victory

Against all the odds, first-timers take gold in Elliott 6m match-racing event

Spain's Ángela Pumariega, Sofía Toro and Tamara Echegoyen celebrate with a flare after winning gold in in the women's Elliott 6m class. / WILLIAM WEST (AFP)

Team skipper Tamara Echegoyen only decided three years ago to make her Olympic dream come true and compete for a place in Spain’s team. On Saturday, along with fellow unknowns Sofía Toro and Ángela Pumariega, she won what is probably one of the least expected medals among the country’s 19 in sailing over the decades — and this from a trio taking part in their first ever Olympics.

That said, the threesome won the Olympic gold medal in women’s match racing thanks in part to a boat-handling error by Australia that swept its skipper into the water. Australia had performed well in the event and looked set to take gold.

With the best-of-five match tied at 1-1, the boats were sailing nearly side-by-side downwind in the third race amid big waves on Weymouth Bay in South West England when the Australian boat became overpowered sailing downwind, its spinnaker wrapped around the forestay and the boat broached onto its side. Skipper Olivia Price was swept out of the back of the boat. Price disappeared into a wave and Curtis and Whitty not only had to get the boat under control, but maneuver to pick up their skipper, hauling her back on board before restarting a forlorn chase.

Spain won that race by over a minute, but the 20-year-old Price and her crew won the fourth race to force a dramatic decider. “We knew it would be like that,” said Toro once back on shore.

We thought it would go to a fifth race but we knew we would win gold”

Incredibly, the Australians made another mistake in the final race. Surfing across the waves on the downwind second leg, the Australians nearly overtook the Spanish crew but Price didn’t give Echegoyen the right of way. The umpire boat flew a penalty flag and Price did a penalty turn, but apparently didn’t complete it properly because the umpire boat continued to fly the penalty flag.

The Spanish boat sailed into a surprise lead and held it across the finish line. “We are very, very happy,” Pumariega said afterwards, adding: “It was close racing and they have won very, very often in Weymouth so to win the gold medal is a dream. We thought it would go to a fifth race because Australia is a very strong team. But we knew we would win the gold medal.”

“We surprised ourselves, though,” said Echegoyen: “We said before the Olympics that we would try to pass the quarterfinals and as each race went very well we said ‘why not go become Olympic champion?’ It is a dream.”

“Nobody believed for a moment that we would get this far, and much less that we would win; just us and our families,” continued Pumariega.

She left her job and began looking for a crew: “But we still didn’t have a boat”

“This prize is partly for our dreams and also for the hard work we have put in,” added Toro.

The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) only decided in 2008 to include a one-on-one match racing class in the London Games. New Zealand boat makers Elliott, seeing that its Elliott 6 met virtually all of the ISAF requirements, tweaked the design to perfect the boat for ISAF and named it the Elliott 6m. At the Olympic meetings held in Spain in November 2008 the Elliott 6m was selected in a 27-to-eight vote as the Women’s Match Racing Yacht for the 2012 Olympics.

This was the point at which Echegoyen decided that this was the category she would take part in. She left her job and began looking for a crew. “But we still didn’t have a boat,” she recalled on Saturday. Galicia’s regional sports federation took them on board, allowing them to use the Arousa High Performance Center, and put them in touch with Jorge Otero, a former regatta competitor and referee. Unable to get their hands on an Elliot, which are not sold commercially, they began practicing the highly tactical maneuvers on an Yngling prototype that they adapted.

The Elliott 6 performs well on all points of sail, accelerates quickly and is very easily maneuvered. At the same time, it is a demanding yacht, requiring up to 2,000 maneuvers over the course of the 20-minute match race. “It is a very attractive boat to watch racing, both from a tactical and technical point of view,” according to Otero, who says that during the race many of the more than 200 “what-if” situations that he practiced with the team suddenly had to be put into action by Echegoyen, balancing them with the rules of the race. “It’s like playing poker,” she says, adding: “Sailing in this category is fun, and very intense.”

Tamara, Sofía, and Ángela’s gold is the result of hard work at sea and on dry land, that has meant putting in hundreds of hours of training both to learn the boat’s manual as well as the rules of the Match category. At the same time they have had to keep in shape through regular workouts in the gym to strengthen their lower back and abdomen, as well as working on improving their balance. This has been supervised by Diego Quintana, a former basketball player, and who also helped train Marina Alabau, the winner of gold in the RS:X windsurfing event.

But the trio won’t get the chance to repeat their feat in Rio in 2016. The International Olympic Committee has scrapped match racing for the next Games, not long after introducing the exciting keelboat head-to-head skirmishes following Beijing 2008. Similarly, there is now doubt as to the likelihood of seeing Marina Alabau on a windsurf board in Rio, following a voting mix-up that will likely see kitesurfing replace windsurfing.

Spanish windsurfers bluster over voting gaffe

Spain’s CSD government sports council has criticized the outgoing head of Spain’s Sailing Federation (RFEV) for his role in a voting mix-up that is set to see windsurfing replaced by kitesurfing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, telling him to resolve the issue before leaving office. One of Spain’s two golds in the sailing section of the London Games came in windsurfing, a medal Marina Alabau will not be allowed to defend in Rio as things stand.

The story dates back to May, when the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) met to vote on giving kiteboarders a chance in the Olympic sailing event. At a previous meeting the ISAF had bracketed kiteboarding with windsurfing for possible selection as an event for the 2016 Olympic Games. Despite a recommendation of 17-2 for the retention of windsurfing by its expert committee, the ISAF Events Committee, the members swung the other way and in a close vote decided to promote kiteboarding ahead of windsurfing for 2016.

Immediately after the meeting RFEV chief Gerardo Pombo took responsibility and apologized for the actions of a substitute council representative for Andorra, Portugal and Spain.

“The RFEV made a mistake in the vote between kitesurf and windsurf as an Olympic sport for Rio 2016. Spain supported and supports keeping windsurfing in the 2016 Olympic Games,” the federation said in a statement on their website.

“Shame”

“Despite all this, at the last moment the Spanish representative on the ISAF Council voted in favor of kite, an error caused by the confusion in the voting system of which the federation president, Gerardo Pombo, takes full responsibility and for which he asks forgiveness from all e Spanish windsurfers. [...] In recent years, RFEV has invested heavily in the development of future windsurfing talents, through a national modernization plan,” the statement read.

Speaking after her victory in the women’s windsurfing event, Alabau said: “There are some people out there who should feel shame about my winning this medal.”

The International RS:X Class Association — the category of windsurfing practiced in the Olympics — has filed a legal challenge against ISAF.

“We will do everything possible to turn this decision around. We will have to use our imagination,” said Pombo last week. One solution, say sources at ISAF, would be for windsurfing and kitesurfing both to be represented, with women practicing windsurfing, and men kitesurfing.

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