THE MEDAL RACE
“One day you will wake up and it is 30th July”. (This date was the first day of racing for the Laser Radial class in the London 2012 Olympic Games.)
This was a sentence my English coach, Jon Emmett, said to me one year before the London Olympics, and he kept on repeating it every now and again. He was trying to help me prepare for this feeling at the start of this big event. And now it was here!
Since there was limited accreditation for each team, only Lima was registered as my coach and Jon wasn’t even able to enter the Olympic Venue or Athletes’ Village. My Chinese mobile phone and laptop had been confiscated by the team, just as it had been in the last Olympic Games in Qingdao. My coaches and leaders believed that I would be protected from pressure and distraction if I was not able to contact anyone in China during the event.
Fortunately, I could still use my UK phone and keep up communication with Jon. He had set his own phone on ‘outdoor mode’ 24 hours a day during the Olympics, and I knew that I could always speak to him, day or night. Every morning I would receive detailed e-mails from Jon with that day’s analysis of the weather, course area, race strategy and key words I needed to remember. Then I would give him a call for a short conversation, instead of a face-to-face meeting, before heading to the venue. He would always end the call with a few final positive words, like “I believe in you”; “We strive to do our very best, hand in hand”; “Let us make the most of the Games”; “Work hard and have fun”; Every day, in every way, I get better and better”; and so on.
After racing we would meet in the gym, doing some light aerobics, followed by a deep stretch to help my body recover quicker. In order to make it less obvious, Jon borrowed his mother’s car, rather than driving his van which had a big logo saying ‘Jon Emmett Sailing’ on it. As usual, we used that time to do our debrief, but this week it was more about psychological topics than sailing.
Annalise Murphy, from Ireland, had a brilliant start to the Games, scoring four first places in a row. After two days’ racing, I was 23 points behind Annalise and in fifth place. From the third day onwards, I consistently climbed up the leader board every day, and entered the final Medal Race with the yellow (leader’s) bib.
This race was going to be a fierce competition. Of the top four sailors (Lijia Xu, China; Marit Brouwmeester, Netherlands; Annalise Murphy, Ireland; Evi Van Acker, Belgium): whoever won the Medal Race would be the Olympic Champion. It had been a pretty dramatic series as all the medal hopes had had some ups and downs – and after ten races we would start even again, for possibly the most important race in all our lives.
In the last briefing with Jon, he told me to sail my own race and follow my instinct. He reminded me that, as far as Rule 42 (making the boat go faster through certain actions like pumping, rocking or sculling) was concerned, there was a different penalty in the Medal Race from the rest of the regatta. Usually when you are first whistled for breaking Rule 42, you have to do two turns, and the second time it happens in a regatta you have to retire from the race. I already had received one penalty in the regatta, so normally another one in this race would mean I would have to retire from the Medal Race, with no chance of a medal. But it is different for the Medal Race and every whistle means ‘just’ a two-turn penalty.
Jon carefully checked that day’s forecast and observed that there might be some shifts to the right. His final words on the phone were “sail like a new regatta and embrace every challenge”. Jon made me laugh several times that morning, making me feel happy and relaxed. He knew it was going to be a good day, but didn’t know just how good.
The conditions for our Medal Race were very different to the previous ones. The wind had been lighter for the previous Medal Races and the left-hand side of the beat had been favoured. For our race, there was still more wind on the left, but because the wind was stronger, the extra pressure would not give more speed. Jon advised me that the shifts on the right (near the land) would be more important.
I asked Jon how windy it was, and he assured me it wouldn’t be too windy as the wind would be strongest for the Men’s Laser Medal Race after ours. Thank goodness we had our Medal Race before the wind increased.
I launched an hour before the starting time as usual. I did my normal pre-race routine, and everything was well planned. It was a westerly wind of 12-15 knots. The Medal Race was held on the Nothe course area, where it could be very shifty since it was close to the shore. After checking the course three times (upwind and downwind), and tracking the wind for about 30 minutes, I found out that there was always a wind bend on the right-hand side, but more wind on the left, upwind.
Before starting, Lima told me that, based on past data on this area and in this wind direction, the left-hand side had a higher ratio of winning upwind. Meanwhile, the starting line was biased towards the pin end (left hand side) by about 15 degrees. Now I had to make the decision about which side of the course I was going to sail, based on this information about this tricky area.
In the end, I chose to start by the pin end (left hand side) and tack onto port (to go right) at the first opportunity, to take advantage of the wind bend on the right-hand side upwind. I would then sail high after rounding the windward mark to get the left-hand side gusts on the run (which would actually be the right-hand side downwind).
I had a so-so start as I managed to position myself as the second boat next to the leeward end (pin), but my acceleration wasn’t good enough. Within a minute, I was overtaken by Marit (NED) who was the third boat by the pin.
“No problem, Lily, I can now tack onto port and head for the right-hand side of the course”, I said to myself and did so. But I was then almost last as I had to duck (sail behind) all the right-of-way boats on starboard. Despite this temporary loss, I actually felt more confident heading to the right because I was on the best lift (or heading) on port. This meant that all the starboard boats were sailing lower than the average heading, because of the oscillating wind shift to the left.
It was risky because the majority of the fleet were sailing to the left and only two boats were on the right. If my judgement turned out to be wrong, then my game was over – I would be off the podium, or certainly not on the top of it. However, my port tack angle was so high that I was convinced that I should continue on this route without any hesitation.
As I anticipated, the wind started to shift back to the right before I reached the lay line (the course to round the mark). I tacked immediately and the wind kept veering, taking me up all the way to the first mark. I was second after crossing all the other boats. Annalise (IRL) was leading the fleet and she was, no doubt, the fastest upwind in medium to strong winds.
After rounding the windward mark, I sailed to the right, as I had intended, to stay in the best wind pressure, and soon overtook the Irish boat. Suddenly I heard a whistle coming from behind. Looking back, a judge was pointing a yellow flag at me and hailed “China”! I was being penalised for breaking Rule 42. It is strange that I have rarely been whistled and got a yellow flag but did in my two Olympic Games. I am a very smooth sailor and struggle to do manoeuvres aggressively, whereas Marit and Evi’s combative sailing styles have led to them having had several whistles from the judges (including at this Olympics).
Well, it wasn’t going to matter since Jon had reminded me that it did not mean a retirement in the Medal Race, and I had imagined so many times how to deal with different types of on-the-water incidents. I didn’t even waste a moment to reflect on what had happened or what went wrong. Instead, I accepted it, dealt with it, let it go and promptly focussed back on my race. Watching the live TV ashore, Jon was also relieved that he had reminded me I did not have to retire and was pleased to see me take the penalty quickly.
This approach was deeply rooted in my subconscious, and I reacted quickly with a penalty turn and then concentrated on my downwind steering again. I was completely unaware of my position at that point, and it was not until I watched the video on shore afterwards that I realised that I had dropped from first to fourth place. It seems that I was wholly engaged in my own race and didn’t bother to think about anything that was beyond my control. I don’t know how I passed the other three boats to be leading again, but we were all very close to each other.
Before rounding the leeward mark, GBR and NED attempted to get an overlap inside me (and so have the right to go inside me at the mark) by sailing much higher than the lay line to the mark.
I luffed firmly not to give them any chances.
I managed to protect my leading position all the way to the finish by combining tactics with playing the shifts. At the finish line I couldn’t help myself and shouted loudly and raised my arm to celebrate my victory. I kissed my boat and thanked her for her cooperation and company on this wonderful journey.
Marit (NED) was next, following about 30 metres behind, and claimed the silver medal. Evi (BEL) was the third finisher in that Medal Race and got a bronze overall.
For the first time in my life, Lima and Quebec hugged me to celebrate when I approached the coaches’ RIB. I could hardly conceal my excitement, raising and waving the Chinese flag high up with the sail. Wow – I had made history: the first ever dinghy sailing gold medal for both China and Asia!
© Not to be reproduced without written permission from Fernhurst Books Limited.
Golden Lily is written by Lijia Xu. Lijia (or Lily) was born in Shanghai in 1987. Her sports career started at the age of 5 when she was accepted by the Changning District Swimming Team. Her interest in sailing began in 1997 after being approached by the Shanghai Optimist Sailing Coach. From the age of 10 Lijia travelled all year round to sail and train; becoming a full-time sailor shortly after her 10th birthday. She twice won the Optimist World Championships. She won a bronze medal in the Laser Radial in Beijing 2008 and gold in London 2012.
To learn about Lily’s amazing life, Golden Lily can be bought here: