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Interview: Mat Belcher & Will Ryan

Interview: Mat Belcher & Will Ryan

Australian 470 duo, Mat Belcher and Will Ryan, are the clear favourites to collect Olympic gold medals in Rio this summer. A minor performance blip in the weed-strewn waters of Argentina at the start of the year saw them fail to retain their world championship title, but they hit back with a comprehensive European Championship victory in Spain this April. 

Belcher won 470 gold at London 2012, crewed by Malcolm Page. That was Page’s second Olympic gold and when the then 40-year-old hung up his trapeze harness for good, Australian Olympic Sailing Team head coach, Victor Kovalenko, smartly paired Belcher with the 24-year old Ryan for a tilt at Rio 2016.

We met up with the Olympic favourites immediately after their Europeans victory to find out what makes them tick.

Sail Racing Magazine: Tell us the story behind you two being put together to campaign for Rio 2016. 

Will: Well, Mat has been part of the Australian team since 2000. Victor had got him into 470s after he won the 420 Worlds. I was sailing 18-foot skiffs and keelboats in Australia when I met Victor at my local sailing club and he told me to come and try 470s. Of course, I did what he told me to do and I got quite into 470 sailing. The following year I did a few of the European events with another helmsman called Sam Kivell. 

As it turned out, Sam and I ended up becoming training partners for Mat and Mal in the lead up to London 2012. 

Mat: Then, after the Olympics, when Mal decided to push forward with other things, I was keen to continue Olympic campaigning and Victor put the two of us together.

SRM: What can you each remember about the first time you sailed together?

Will: I remember being a little bit nervous of getting the chance to sail with Mat, but I also remember feeling that this was a really special opportunity for me. I knew Mat was the best in the world and that makes you want to perform at your best too. So you feel the pressure to do that, but there is also this strange reassurance in knowing you have someone like Mat to help you perform at your best. The great thing is that, even now, some of that nervous excitement is definitely still there – for both of us I think – in that we are exploring new styles of sailing together. 

Mat: Both Sam and Will were with Mal and I training every day up until the London Olympics. I remember that time really fondly because the four of us knew each other really well and all got on together and that made it fun. 

After London, the decision for me was whether I wanted to continue Olympic campaigning, factoring in my family commitments. Will’s sailing style is very unique and his work rate is simply ridiculous. I knew that if I had the chance to sail with him for another Olympic cycle then I wanted to take it. It’s fair to say he was the only person I would have wanted to sail with.

In the first couple of sessions we did – I think it was a week in Sydney – we very quickly developed a really nice kind of rhythm. But, after winning the gold the previous year, going into the 2013 season surrounded by so much pressure and expectation to perform was pretty daunting. A lot of that pressure was centred on Will, but when I saw how well he dealt with it, all I could think was: ‘Wow! This is going to be a really exciting four years for us!”

It’s a big decision to continue when you have won the Olympic gold and the Worlds and basically done everything you set out to achieve. No one wants to come back and not do well. If you decide to carry on then you have to be really very confident that you are going to be successful. In fact, I was really confident and very excited about where I believed we could take our partnership. 

SRM: You guys are the undeniable favourites to take the gold in Brazil this summer. Does being favourites prey on your minds and add to the pressure, or can you put it to one side?

Mat: In the beginning it’s hard to deal with the pressure of expectation. At the end of the day, however, we are in an Olympic sport and we have to be able to deal with the pressure that goes along with that. That was the choice we made when we took on this Olympic adventure. You have to perform and so that’s what we do. I would much rather be the favourites than not really have a chance. 

So, we try to embrace the challenge the best way we can and support each other and trust each other – not just us two, but our coach and the other people in the team we have helping us. 

SRM: As Olympic favourites, do you think about or make assessments of your main competition?

Will: I think you would be naïve to ignore the competition, but at the same time, one of the biggest things I have learned from Mat and Victor is that we have to focus predominantly on improving ourselves. If you don’t perform the way you want to perform, then it’s going to be hard to get a good result. Whereas, if you are happy with the way you have raced, then that’s a huge asset in trying to get a good result at a big event.

Mat: The coaches certainly get busy with all that; the top ten coaches are out there with their video cameras every race. But we have a long list of things we want to work on, so we don’t really have any time to worry what the other crews are doing. That said, if you get a team that suddenly starts performing way above their normal level then everyone will sit up and pay attention. 

SRM: Is this a class where someone can make a big leap in performance like that?

Will: Everyone can have their day! But we are fortunate that most of the boats are very, very similar in the 470 class and we all sail against each other so much that everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s style of sailing.

SRM: Although you are members of the Australian Sailing Team, Olympic sailing is really an individual rather than a team sport. How much camaraderie and support do you draw from the rest of the AUS squad?  

Will: Olympic campaigning is a busy occupation and we are all a long way from home for a great deal of the time. I don’t think I have raced in my local club for over nine years, but that’s the sacrifice you make to compete on the European circuit and be successful on the Olympic stage. 

You naturally get drawn together with your teammates. I think Aussies are instinctively friendly people anyway and when you travel as a group on the circuit you are always curious to find out how people are doing results-wise in the regatta and to see if you can help them out. That makes for a nice environment, you make a lot of good friends and in the end you are all one big family. That’s particularly true for me as I have my two younger sisters competing on the circuit too.

SRM: On the face of it, being an Olympic campaigner is a pretty glamorous lifestyle – jetting around the world to cool regattas and getting to go sailing all the time. What’s the less glamorous side of Olympic life?

Will: Last year I slept no more than 12 days in my own bed at home. That can get to you after a little while. There’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make with your personal time: not seeing your family and friends and missing out on the parties that everyone else goes to - stuff like that. 

In the end, though, you wouldn’t have it any other way. We are very driven and competitive people and we don’t accept any sort of excuses for slacking off. We don’t want to have any aspect of the campaign come back and bite us at a later date so we are happy to invest our time now. 

Mat: This is my fourth Olympic cycle so I know as well as most what an interesting journey it can be. I first started 470 sailing just after the Sydney Olympic Games. I had just finished school and I went straight on the Olympic programme. I remember that year was quite a culture shock. I spent a lot of time living with our coach Victor and I wasn’t old enough to get a full driving licence yet so he had to drive me round everywhere. 

Fast forward to 2012 when I have a wife who is also competing in a 470 at the London Olympics. Since then things have transitioned quickly again and now we have two kids to factor into the equation too.

So Will is absolutely right about it being hard but us not wanting it any other way. I’m aware I’m in a different position to many of the other campaigners, in that I have a wife at home and it’s hard to be away from her and the kids as much as I am. I’m more mature as well and that has some benefits, but it also means I have more responsibility too. 

That’s why Will and I work hard to find the right balance on how we get the most out of our time away from home. I’m really proud of the last three and a half years and the time we have invested in training and attending the events. We are pretty lucky to have very supportive partners and although we find it hard to be away from them it’s a great motivator for us to make that time really count. 

We are not here for a party or to have a great time. We have to enjoy what we do but there is certainly a very serious side to what we do.

Will: But it is also hugely rewarding too! The life skills you learn as an Olympic campaigner I think are second to none. Just as one example – to travel so extensively overseas as a young person and to take on the world on your own is an amazing experience. There are a lot of challenges that you have to face but that just means there are also plenty of stories that you get to tell afterwards!

SRM: Tell us about how you structure your schedule for the year?

Mat: Most of our training is structured around the events. Each of the teams may do things slightly differently but we are mainly focused on the European circuit. As Australians the logistics challenge for us is to be able to position ourselves in Europe so we can get to the events early enough to practise. Unlike most of the European crews, we can’t just go home in between events, so we are quite cautious of being away for excessive amounts of time. 

And every year is different. This year we had our World Championship in Argentina in February. Traditionally that period is our down time when we don’t plan to be doing too much, but this year we were away at the Worlds for four weeks. Then we had a big regatta in Palma followed by the Europeans straight afterwards, all within three weeks. 

What this all boils down to is that we both made the decision to live in Europe for about six months of every year. My wife and kids are in Hamburg, Germany now until the end of the Games.

Will: My girlfriend competes in another class on the circuit, so between our two schedules we try to fling together some holidays and time to see each other. It’s important that you get some down time or at least spend some time somewhere a little more relaxed than a regatta venue. 

SRM: We hear a lot these days about how fit sailors have to be to compete at the top level in events like the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race. Olympic sailing must be no different, so how do you deal with your fitness training when you travel so much?

Will: For the 470 we need to be quite skinny and in many ways the best form of training is simply to go sailing and not to eat very much. 

We have access to a great deal of physical training support and advice from the team back in Australia. They assist us in making a broad plan, but to a large extent our fitness is really down to our own commitment. It’s about whether we are each going to get up in the mornings and go for a run, do our recovery Pilates and all the other stuff. We motivate each other and that really helps. 

Mat: Yes, it’s a little bit self-regulating. Will does his programme, I do mine and we don’t really check up on each other. But when you do three races a day over several days of a regatta, it’s immediately obvious if one of you is not fit enough. If Will looks back all the time and sees me not hiking, then I’m pretty sure he is going to have a quiet word with me.

Will: More likely I will just post a sneaky picture on Facebook! The truth is, neither of us wants to let the other one down, so we are always pushing each other. We used to run together but it always just ended up as a race, so now we trust each other to do our part. Ultimately fitness is a key part of our campaign so we get it done.

Mat: The fitness aspect is significant and I think one of the most noticeable changes between London and Rio is the marked increase in the athleticism of the fleet. That’s down to this new generation of super fit and motivated sailors that Will typifies. 

470 sailing has [body] pumping now and with that and in other areas you have to be really fit. Across the fleet you can see everyone stepping it up on the fitness – getting up early and going running. Because now we are not just sailors, we are athletes. I think it’s great for the sport that when you see sailors on TV now they look like real athletes.  

SRM: Mat, what differences do you see between sailing with Mal and now Will?

Mat: Physically, Mal was incredible to be able to do what he did at the age of 40. Will is 17 years younger and he is driven, motivated and super fit, so when he jumped into the boat I could obviously see a change. 

When we are in a bad position at the start, Will automatically tries to get me out of it and into a better spot. That’s what you get from a younger, highly motivated and talented sailor who wants to prove to the world that he is the best. Quite frankly, I can’t ask for anything better than that.

SRM: Are the roles on the boat divided up any differently?

Mat: Not really, other than I would say it’s more fluid between Will and I. We don’t really have anything really defined. Some days he will be able to see things better than I can and be making better decisions. If that’s the case then we just go with it, you know. Other days it might fall to me. I would say we are pretty even between the two scenarios.

Will: When we first sailed together, he had just won an Olympic gold medal doing things his way, so I wasn’t really in a place to argue too much that he should do things any differently. Now, sometimes if I can see the colour of the water a bit more clearly from the trapeze or feed him some extra information, then obviously I will. On the other hand, at other times, say when I’m working hard on the pumping, then I can’t really be looking around too much and then I leave it to Mat.

SRM: What is the communication like on the boat? How much talking do you do while you are racing?

Mat: We talk a lot but it’s not always about racing!

Will: We try to filter it as much as possible – that’s the key, we think. If you are constantly saying a lot of things, then the important things can get brushed over. So we work hard at just communicating as clearly as possible the main point of what we are thinking or seeing. Of course, the more time you have sailing and racing together really helps with that.

Mat: We are still a relatively new team, but nevertheless, we have accumulated lots of experience in high-pressure situations where we have been able to perform well. That’s helped us build our confidence and I feel like we have built a really good platform of trust together. I really enjoy it when Will says to me something like, “Mat, we have got to tack!” It just means he is really on to it. 

SRM: How ready do you feel to take on the Olympics? 

Mat: We are ready. It’s hard to put a percentage figure on it, but if the Games were tomorrow then we would be happy to go racing tomorrow. I think we have managed our programme well over the last four years. We have balanced out sponsor responsibilities, the input from our coach and everyone’s expectations of us. We still have a lot we can do and it’s in both our natures that we will keep working right up to the Games – we are that competitive. So we are certainly not complacent, but we feel that we are well and truly on track to be where we want to be.

SRM: As a new team have you invested more training hours than for London 2012?

Mat: I would say we have invested more time on the water during this campaign than the last one. We have done a lot of training and a lot of events.

Will:  It’s a different experience base this time – I haven’t got the same track record as
Malcolm. Then the Rio factor has changed the logistics element of the campaign too because you have to invest extra time to get there and train. We have had a few Olympic test events and suchlike, so we have been there five or six times now.

MB: The good thing is that we are confident that we won’t get to Rio feeling like we could have invested more time. I think we have been to the Olympic venue more than most teams and done more on the circuit than anyone else too. I think it’s a really nice position for us to be able to come into this Olympics able to say that we have really given it everything. 

[All Images: Jesus Renaldo/Sailing Energy]

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