SPORTS

Olympic challenge: Veteran Canadian sailor looks to put it all together at Games

07/24/2012 12:58 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT
Athlete, tactician, technician, fundraiser. Richard Clarke has worn all those hats and more leading up the London Olympics.

The 43-year-old sailor from B.C.'s Salt Spring Island and crewmate Tyler Bjorn of Beaconsfield, Que., are Canada's entry in the prestigious Star class. Their Olympic campaign is complicated and expensive, akin to running a mini-corporation.

"This year's price tag is just over half a million dollars," said Clarke, a veteran of four previous Olympic teams.

They have two Star boats, each costing $90,000. The sails costs $4,000 and don't last long.

"The Star boat is big and expensive and you go through sails like Formula One cars go through tires," said Clarke. "It's a huge cost but we've been incredibly well-supported."

Clarke cites the help of groups like the Canadian Yachting Association, Own The Podium, B2ten, CAN Fund, Country Grocer, High Liner Foods and Wind Athletes Canada, among others.

There is also Clarke and Bjorn's own Get on Board campaign, with contributors having their name put on their Star boat. As of one week before the Games, the campaign had produced 405 names and $32,000.

"Still about $30k short of our needs but not worrying about that now," Clarke said.

Clarke equates running their boat to a race car team.

"The top car teams are on the track all the time tying to find that extra half a second. Well, we're doing the same thing," he explained. "The difference between almost a quarter of a mile an hour in speed can be a massive advantage, so we're constantly out there trying to find speed."

The Clarke-Bjorn team also includes Steve Mitchell, a former Star world champion who is now high performance coach and manager of the Canadian sailing team, and trainer and strength coach Peter Levidas.

The 11-member Canadian sailing team is young but full of potential, according to Clarke.

Windsurfers Nikola Girke of West Vancouver and Zachary Plavsic of Vancouver have done well in the leadup to the Games.

Then there's the 470 team of Mike Leigh of Nanaimo, B.C., and Luke Ramsay of Vancouver, whom Clarke dubs an "amazing story."

"They're two Laser sailors that both dropped a ton of weight to sail together in the 470. Very, very green but they're starting to put some podium results in races. They haven't put it together for an entire event yet."

The Canadian team also features Greg Douglas of Toronto (Finn), David Wright of Montreal (Laser), Danielle Dube of Halifax (Laser Radial) and Gordon Cook of Toronto and Hunter Lowden of North Vancouver (49er).

"As a team — again honesty here — probably none of us are pegged as medal favourites but all of us have medal potential," Clarke continued. "Obviously we (the Star) have the highest medal potential of anybody just because we have medalled in a lot of events and we've been the only Canadian team to make the medal race in all of the World Cup events.

"We're constant performers but by no means does that mean none of our other teammates have a shot. We all have to sail the regattas of our lives."

Going into the Games, Clarke likes what he sees in his boat. Although he is clearly a perfectionist.

"We get it pretty well figured out, then we find another hole in our armour. We patch that up and everything's good, then we find another hole. ... . It's a tricky beast, the Star boat. It's not afraid to bite you every now and then when you make a mistake."

Clarke's father John, now a Toronto dentist, sailed for Canada in 1972. That's about the time he built an eight-foot plywood boat, dropped it a lagoon on Toronto Island where they lived and started his son's sailing career. Richard was three and a half at the time.

Twenty years later, Richard Clarke was an Olympian.

He was an alternate in 1992 in the 470 class, then shifted to the Finn where he finished ninth in 1996, 17th in 2000 and 18th in 2004.

A professional sailor who has won around-the-world races and world championships in non-Olympic boats, Clarke had put the Games behind him when Bjorn called and asked him if was interested in sailing in a Star regatta.

The two were lifelong friends, had sailed against each other and Bjorn had even coached Clarke at one point. The ties go back to their fathers, who also sailed against each other.

"So we did a regatta," Clarke said. "We did very well in that regatta. So we decided we'd do another one. And we did very well in that one. So we thought we'd do one more. And we actually won that regatta.

"And then it was an Olympic campaign, although I think for a long time I said that it wasn't and that I was on a vacation and enjoying myself sailing the Star boat. But eventually it really was an Olympic campaign and that was two years ago and that's why I'm here."

Clarke had always been intrigued by the Star boat, the only Olympic-class boat with a keel (a jutting piece of lead that stops boat from tipping over). It's the longest boat in the Olympics and has the most sail area.

"It's beautiful, it's majestic," said Clarke.

And it attracts an elite class of sailor.

The Olympic field includes Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada, current world champions and 2008 silver medallists. Britain's Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson are back to defend their Olympic title.

"And after that, you could probably walk around the marina here and ask each individual team at the Olympics to pick their favourites," said Clarke. "Obviously Percy and Scheidt are going to be on the list and then the third spot is going to be a mixed bag."

"It's really, really tight. There are multiple world champions and multiple medallists in this fleet."

Many, like Clarke, have moved to the Star after successful careers in other boats.

Scheidt won medals in the Olympics in the Laser. Percy climbed the podium in the Finn.

"It's the class that you almost graduate to," Clarke said. "People either quit the sport or sail the Star. Not to be conceited or blow the Star's horn — but it almost has a greater proportion of the best sailors in the world than any other class."

The Olympics, by his own admission, have not been the highlight of Clarke's career.

"I'm very proud to call myself what will be a five-time Olympian. I love wearing the red and white for Canada. But I never, ever want to just go to the Olympics ... I'm here to win medals and I've always been here to win medals and it hasn't happened."

Clarke is not afraid to look back and try to analyze why.

Going into the 2000 Games, he was ranked No. 1 in the world. But in a sport where competitors are constantly testing, tweaking and fine-tuning equipment, his search for speed led him astray.

"Definitely in 2000 I made some mistakes trying to develop a sail that ultimately was fast but only fast in a very small wind range and it hurt me in the other wind ranges. I was actually a bit slow. So those are mistakes that you learn from.

"Our current philosophy is we're not doing anything outside the box, so to speak. Being very conservative with our choices and just making sure that we know our equipment really well. And we are quick, we are really really quick. We just need to work on our corners. Our coach calls us a very good muscle car, fast as hell on a straight line but we don't corner very well."

As a team, Clarke says he and Bjorn are a good fit.

"We do like being together. We do have different personalities that mesh well. He's more outgoing and fun. And I'm more serious and thoughtful, let's say.

"Two of me in the room, we'd probably butt heads so we're a good mix. Again just being friends for such a long time, when the chips are down it's better to battle through it with a good friend than somebody that you may not know very well."

The Olympic sailing event will take place at Weymouth and Portland on the English south coast.

Clarke and Bjorn, 43, will take part in 11 races over six days — two races a day for the first five days and then the field will be cut to the top 10 boats for a final race that is worth twice as much.

Finish first and you get one point, with lower-placed team getting more points. The team with the least amount of points at the end of the regatta wins gold.

While Clarke savours having turned his love for sailing into a career, it comes at a cost. The nomadic life of a professional sailor often takes him away from wife Andria and seven-year-old daughter Zoe.

"That's the most difficult part, I'll be very honest with you. I get very emotional when I even talk about it. . . . I've broken many promises to my wife. I promised she wasn't going to be a single parent and she really has been unfortunately."

His daughter went through health issues that Clarke says came down to "NMD — need more Dad."

"She was only sick when I wasn't around. When I got home, she was fine. It breaks my heart when you hear she tells her friends 'Dad doesn't live at home.' She tells her friends that her Dad loves sailing more than her. Those are things I will promptly try to fix when this is done."

As a result, Clarke's short-term post-Olympic plan is simple.

"I've got five weeks where I'm going to do nothing else but love my family. Guaranteed. But there are bills to play and we're wiped."

"Again we've been very, very fortunate to have such substantial backing financially but there's nothing in the bank. And neither my wife or I are currently working. ... Going back to work for me is easier than my wife, first and foremost because we do live on a small island and it's hard for her to work there. Which is obviously a choice that we made.

"But yeah, I've got my next professional job in the middle of September and I'm back to work."

Ultimately, his dream is to open a sailing academy on Salt Spring.

In the meantime, his focus is on an Olympic regatta that is gruelling whatever the conditions.

If the wind is light, the challenge is more mental — how to get an advantage over the rest of the fleet.

And when the wind blows, bodies can take a beating.

"We spend the better part of the race hanging over the side of the boat with most of our body weight supported only by our quadriceps and our hip flexors and our shins and our ankles. And then I've got this huge sail that I have to constantly adjust."

The two spend long hours in the gym to prepare for that. And after races, they are serious about recovery.

"I'm no longer coming in and drinking a beer and putting my feet up," said Clarke. "We're into the ice bath and very focused on our nutrition, making sure we have a recovery drink right afterwards and good food at night and then a good 45 minutes of therapy with our trainer on the table. And then you go out and do it again the next day.

"Each race is an hour and 15 minutes so you're doing two and a half of substantial effort each day. You're almost running a marathon every day and we get to do it over six days in succession. So it's very tiring and very taxing and we work hard to prepare our bodies for it."

There is a sub-Olympic Village at the sailing venue but Clarke and Bjorn have opted for rented accommodations, where they can control food and other variables.

The Star competition starts Sunday.

---

www.clarkebjornsailing.com

www.getonboard.ca

MORE:cpSports