Potent new British 49er pairing Fletcher & Bithell set sights on Tokyo 2020
In the run-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games British sailors Dylan Fletcher and Stuart Bithell were sworn enemies on the water as they and their respective sailing partners, Alain Sign and John Pink, battled head to head for the right to represent Britain in the 49er class.
There was little to separate the two crews throughout the trials but ultimately it was Fletcher and Sign who got the nod from the selectors. After 10-years of sailing together the duo harboured hopes of coming away from Rio with a pair of Olympic medals. In the end though they had to settle for sixth place.
Now, with the dust well and truly settled on the Rio Olympics, attention has switched to Tokyo 2020 and the once deadly rivals, Fletcher and Bithell, have teamed up together for a tilt at the 49er Olympic top spot.
Fletcher says Bithell was his number one pick when Alain Sign bowed out of Olympic sailing after Rio.
“After 10 years racing with Alain, sailing at this level with someone else was always going to be an exciting new challenge,” he says. “I had a few people in mind, but Stu was firmly at the top of my list.”
Fletcher consulted with British Olympic Sailing Team boss Stephen Park before meeting with Bithell in the UK to flesh out a deal to team up for the 2020 Olympics. Surprisingly perhaps given the intensity of their former rivalry, the transition from competitors to crew mates has gone surprisingly well.
“There is no question we were fierce competitors for the one British spot during the last cycle,” Bithell admits. “But the British Sailing Team does a good job of facilitating healthy rivalry. We wanted to rip each other’s throats out on the water, but at the same time had a lot of respect for each other.”
“We only decided to sail together after the 2016 Olympic games had finished and we had both separated from our previous sailing partnerships. We both have a deep down feeling that together we can make a strong world class 49er team. It was a bit weird at first, but spending a bit of fun time together racing around in foiling Moths helped us to start to create a relationship.”
Fletcher says that even as competitors on the water the pair managed to maintain a cautious friendship ashore.
“I have known Stu since I got into the RYA Olympic Development program back in 2007. I wouldn’t say we were ever close back then but we always got along well.”
But when the Olympic trials process pitted them against each other for the British 49er berth at Rio 2016, there was precious little room left for friendships.
“Once the trials start everything changes,” says Fletcher. “We were never destructive to each other’s campaigns - I had a huge amount of respect for Pinky and Stu – but they were the enemy and every time Alain and I sailed together we wanted to beat them. Although you get along, there’s always that fierce rivalry between you and that’s that - it’s dog eat dog.”
Two years senior to Fletcher, Bithell – who won Olympic silver in the 470 class at the London 2012 with helmsman Luke Patience - says he had been aware of Fletcher’s rise up the 49er rankings.
“We didn't ‘grow up’ racing each other in the youth and junior classes, but I have known Dylan a long time now. I have watched him rise to the top of the 49er fleet, knocking some of the best 49er teams in the UK and the world off their perches along the way.”
Fletcher and Bithell’s new partnership got off to an auspicious start this January when they dominated at the World Sailing Cup in Miami, easily winning the regatta with a string of five race wins and just three results outside the top five.
Both were understandably pleased with the victory but equally recognise that it is the first small step along the four-year path that leads to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“It felt awesome, not just winning, but the whole regatta,” Fletcher says. “We did not go there with any big goals, just to go and see how it all panned out. We were slippery during the racing, cutting through the fleet well in tricky conditions. But we didn't get it all right, as you would expect for a new team we still have lots to learn. We were still stoked to start our campaign off with a Gold medal and hopefully it's the first of many.”
Bithell says what is most valuable is what they learned rather than the victory itself. Particularly pleasing however were early indications of their potential to dominate the fleet in a way reminiscent of reigning Olympic champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke from New Zealand in the last Olympic cycle.
“We had a very strong first regatta,” says Bithell. “We showed signs of dominance like the Kiwi lads have for the past four years – but they were only signs and there is so much more work to do in order for me and Dylan to deliver out best. We learnt a lot from the regatta and that was then main thing - not the win, that was a bonus.”
Coaching them on their Olympic quest will be Bithell and Pink’s coach last cycle, Ben Rhodes, who Fletcher describes as “one of the best 49er coaches in the world and a really nice guy who is proud to be British and driven to win medals.”
Bithell is equally enthusiastic about Rhodes – who, with helmsman Stevie Morrison won the 2007 49er world championship and represented Britain at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games.
“He's brilliant and has a wealthy knowledge of the 49er class having been a world champion and double Olympian,” he says.
Together, Rhodes, Fetcher and Bithell are in the process of fleshing out a masterplan they believe will lead to a pair of British gold medals in Japan in 2020. This year that’s likely to include World Sailing World Cup Series events in France and Spain, the 49er European championship in Germany, the world championship in Portugal and a recce to the Olympic venue in Japan.
At the core of this new British campaign is a detailed goal-setting system that Bithell says will determine the pair’s daily training routine between now and 2020.
“If I told you the depths our goal-setting goes to, you wouldn't believe me,” Bithell says. “When the planning is finished we will have very clear targets/stepping stones that will lead us to having the best chance of gold in 2020. Those targets get broken down into actions that fuel our training and every day activity.”
Fletcher and Bithell were giving little away about what their interim goals might be over the coming years, other than Fletcher’s hint that “winning the world championships and test event the year before the Games would be a good place to start”.
With the right breaks Fletcher and Bithell have the potential to be the strongest British Olympic 49er partnership since Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks won Britain’s last 49er Olympic medal – bronze at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
Bithell knows well what it takes to get on the Olympic podium and can back that experience up with an impressive natural sailing talent. Fletcher meanwhile is hungry for success after being “bitterly disappointed” to come home from Rio without a medal. According to Bithell, their two styles complement each other nicely out on the racecourse.
“I think new partnerships have a unique element of fresh energy and we are currently running high with that,” he says. “We both bring a chunk of experience to the table. I would say my strength over the years has been having a solid base of consistency. Add in Dylan’s flare, fire and drive and you could have the recipe for something special.