Ireland's Olympic Sailors Phil Lawton and Ger Owens
Sailing against light winds in Qingdao: Phil Lawton and Ger Owens have a chance of an Olympic medal in the 470 sailing class. By Emma Browne
Light wind conditions, awkward tidal currents, sometimes a thick fog. Recently the sea was clogged with a 154-square-mile green sludge of algae. From the outset Qingdao, on the Yellow sea on the east coast of China, was seen as an unusual and a controversial choice for the Beijing Olympic sailing venue. Also, too far away from the host city of Beijing. Over 450 miles,
Phil Lawton (30), who along with Ger Owens (30) (both pictured right) represent Ireland in the Men's 470 sailing class, says: “Everyone is prepared for light wind conditions. We heave geared ourselves up for light airs and I started to enjoy racing in that because I think we can do quite well in it.
“There is potential for a day to be called off completely. That's one thing that is quite difficult about sailing as a sport, so you might come down one morning and there is no wind and they delay you on land, it is difficult to sort of keep your momentum going.”
The two have just returned from training in Qingdao. “There were reports of the green algae before we went out [in June] and then by the time we arrived out most of it was cleaned up. I mean we were trying to estimate the amount of trawlers that were cleaning it up we couldn't even begin to, hundreds. It's quite smoggy and foggy and visibility is pretty poor so sometimes you would see hundreds of more trawlers you didn't even know were there , the course was surrounded by them,” says Phil Lawton.
This year Ireland has competitors in four out of the 11 Olympic sailing events — Peter O'Leary and Stephen Milne in the Star class, Timothy Goodbody in the Finn class, Ciara Peelo in the Laser Radial category (see panel on page 41) and Ger Owens and Phil Lawton in the Men's 470 class.
There are chances of medal wins for Ireland — Ciara Peelo has shown some promising performances, coming 8th in the Laser Radial category in the pre-Olympics. Ger Owens and Phil Lawton, potentially also could bag a medal and have had some impressive successes, all the more impressive given they formed a sailing partnership only in October 2006 and Phil Lawton became able to concentrate on training full-time only since last October. Three months later, the pair were placed 8th place in the Sail Melbourne event, which is one of only five ISAF (International Sailing Federation) Grade 1 events held annually around the world. “That was pretty good and we were pretty content with that.” says Phil. They placed 10th in the pre-Olympics in China last year and 8th at the Holland Regatta earlier this year.
The 470 class is a two man dinghy and is seen as the most technical class out of the 11 Olympic sailing categories. It is also very physical and weight dependent and the sailors competing in it generally have to be less than 70 kilograms to achieve optimum speed and movement. Ger previously represented Ireland at the Athens Olympics with his then team partner Ross Killian, coming 18th in the 470 class and had trained full time in the 470 class since 2001 so he was already at an advantage physically. Phil has had to undergo a strict diet and extensive fitness regime, through which he has lost 14 kilos.
The two both come from south country Dublin, Ger Owens from Booterstown and Phil Lawton from Dun Laoghaire. They had known each other through sailing in Dun Laoghaire since they were teenagers.
“We had first sailed together about 10 years ago and then Ger approached me that October 2006 and he had been sailing with someone else and wanted to continue on, and, my size suits, well it didn't then, I was kind of overweight for the boat at first, but potentially my height and stuff suited for the conditions that are expected in China,” says Phil Lawton.
“We will be the lightest team in the Olympics in a venue that suits light teams,” adds Ger Owens.
Their training has involved a two sailing sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the evening with a gym session in between. In order to help them prepare they have had a full time coach, Ross Killian, with them who was also Ger's partner in the Athens Olympics. They had the advice of fitness coaches, dieticians and did two training camps with other Olympic teams. They also have invested in a new boat, to value of €10,000.
“The physical side of it has been the most difficult, mentally we are very gritty and even if things are not going too well we can keep our spirits up,” Says Phil Lawton.
In the boat Ger Owens steers and is in charge of all the technical issues like the currents, wind, placement of the sail etc. Phil has the more physically demanding of the two jobs – he is held out on a trapeze on the side of the boat, managing the boat over the waves and through the wind by the use of his body and weight. “Our roles are mentally quite different, really your brains are working in a different way and that can be difficult at times,” says Phil.
Ger Owens says that this time around they are “better prepared and more experienced” than he and his then partner were in Athens.
“We would really like to achieve a top eight result [at the Olympics], and who knows, regatta can either go your way or against you .We have put everything in place that we possibly can in order to achieve that if not better,” says Phil Lawton.
Ger Owens says: “We expect to achieve an outstanding performance never seen in Irish sailing before, if we can perform on a par with our preparation then we are set to achieve this.”
Phil Lawton: “It's all to play for, the Australian crew is really good, probably the top boat in the world at the moment, in terms of form, the British boat is a top boat as well, the Italians, I mean there is so many nations that are really good it is hard to narrow down. And then there is also China. We are hoping to be one of those surprises, China could throw up a few surprises, cos [sic] it's such an unusual venue.”
Ger Owens: “Because we are the smallest team everyone is bigger than us!”
Phil Lawton says that the Australians and the British are the best in the world because they have been together a long time: “It does seem that the longer a team is together the better their form... as well as that those countries have a very good set up with youth teams that go back years, Ireland though has got a lot better in that regard in recent years.”
The success of Ireland's youth programmes are now beginning to show with the likes of the younger Irish sailors in this year's Olympics like Timothy Goodbody, Stephen Milne and Peter O'Leary.
With a new system of qualifying and scoring in place this year it is all to play for. Previously the scoring in Olympic sailing meant the medal winners would sometimes have been decided prior to the last race, obviously lessening spectator interest in the finals. But since Athens they have introduced a new system in which the boats in a particular class compete over a number of races and competitors are awarded points in order, one for first place, two for second etc. Then the top 10 with the lowest points go through to the final medal race, but in that race teams are awarded double points.
“So potentially there is a huge gap to close, so say somebody went in 10 points clear they know somebody could catch them if they have a bad race. The idea of it was to get the public more interested in terms of television. It does add another bit of spice to it,” says Phil Lawton.
As with most Irish athletes Phil Lawton and Ger Owens both have day jobs. Phil Layton lectures in geography in Trinity College Dublin and is doing a PhD there, having studied geography in UCD. He will have to return almost straight after the Olympics to resume his PhD. Ger Owens also studied geography in UCD (he was a year behind Phil). Between the last Olympics and this he also did a Masters in Smurfit Business School and taught at his former secondary school, Gonzaga College.
This year's games have been the most hyped of all Olympics as well as being the most controversial probably since the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Issues to do with human rights in China, press censorship, the Tibet issue and a host of environmental concerns, notably pollution. China has spent four times the spend on the Athens Olympics in 2004, a record $37 billion. “Yes it is hard [not to get distracted],” says Ger Owens referring to these “side” issues.
Phil Lawton says: “I think, there has been a bit too much hype, a lot of negative coverage. It's funny, I normally like reading newspaper articles about general world issues but I have found naturally that I have distanced myself from the press and the way its writing about China in the last few months, which in some ways may seem a bit ignorant of me but at the same time I just don't want to know. I will want to know afterwards.”
“Last time there was a lot of coverage in the Irish press about the Irish Olympics sailing hopefuls, this time round there has not been as much coverage, I don't know why, but in one way it is kind of good as it relieves the pressure. I am not nervous I am just excited and looking forward to getting out there,” says Phil Lawton.
The Olympic sailing begins on the 9 August with the 470 class beginning on the 11 August.
The other Irish sailors in the Beijing Olympics
Ciara Peelo (29), is representing Ireland in the Laser Radial class. Originally from Malahide she began sailing at 10 years of age. She won a bronze medal in the Youth World Sailing Championships in 1996. It was only 2002 that she started sailing in the Laser Radial class and again earned a bronze at Radial World Championships in Canada that year. In 2004 there was bronze again in the Radial European Championships. She placed 8th in her class in the pre-Olympics. She works as a PE teacher. This is the first year that the Laser Radial has been used as a boat for the Olympic single-handed woman class.
Peter O'Leary (22), from Cork and Stephen Milne (22), from Belfast Loguh, are representing Ireland in the Olympic Star class. Phil Lawton says Peter O'Leary is “one of Ireland's most talented sailors.” He came sixth at the ISAF Youth Worlds in 2001 and won Irish Sailor of the Year in 2007. Their boat is a two people keelboat. The Star has been an Olympic Games class since 1932 and is a very popular racing boat with 2,000 active racing fleets in North America and Europe. O'Leary comes from a famous Cork sailing bloodline being the grandson of Archie O'Leary, a noted offshore racer in the Seventies with his string of ‘Irish Mist' yachts. There is already an Olympic medal on the other side of his family. His maternal grandfather is Robin Aisher, winner of the 5.5 metre class Bronze medal in 1968 at Acapulco for Britain.
There was controversy over the selection of O'Leary and Milne as they had placed 17th in the qualifiers and were selected over another pair, Max Treacy and Anthony Shanks, who placed 14th. Treacy and Shanks unsuccessfully appealed Irish Sailing Association's decision to the Olympic Council of Ireland.
Timothy Goodbody, has qualified for the Finn class which is a heavyweight dinghy. Since the 1952 debut of the boat, the design has been in every summer Olympics, making it one of the most prolific Olympic sailboats. Tim was originally seen as a potential medal winner for 2012, and attending this year's Olympics for the experience but Phil Lawton says that: “He could out and do it this year, people could get a shock, he has the right mentality and he could do very well as he has come from nowhere to very good very quickly.” Timothy honed his art at Greystones sailing club and was the first Irish sailor to be selected for the Olympics last year.