Is this man the world's best sailor? Many think so. By Richard Cooke.


Wind in his sails: Mathew Belcher, 32, sailor

A London Olympics gold medallist in the 470 dinghy class, Mathew Belcher carried the Olympic flag at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics when he was still a junior. He and his current sailing partner, Will Ryan, have already won the first two world championships in which they have competed. 

Richard Cooke You’ve said that the psychology of sailing fascinates you. 

Mathew Belcher Sailing is such a mental sport. The competition runs over multiple days, typically a week. Every day is something different. You’re spending five or six hours on the water, and you’ve got so much time to think about it. Each race is almost one hour long, and there are lots of opportunities to get sidetracked. Just being able to focus and perform, and know how to get the best out of yourself – it really takes a lot of time and experience. 

RC You’ve now won multiple world championships. It’s getting to the point where you and your partner are defining your sport. 

MB I guess it’s one of the decisions for myself, whether to continue or not. Winning in London was a dream come true. On one side of it, you’ve achieved everything that you wanted to achieve. But we learned so much getting to that stage and about how to keep pushing ourselves. I knew there were lots of areas I wanted to explore. I knew we could be better, and I was really enjoying what we were doing. 

RC Tell me about your current partner, Will Ryan.

MB He’s 17 years younger than my former partner [Malcolm Page]. He was with us almost every day in the build-up to London 2012 and I got to know him really well, and I got to know his personality. I was really confident when Will came in to replace Malcolm that the partnership would work. I didn’t expect it would gel that quickly, and I didn’t expect for us to get the results that we did in the beginning. That can be good and bad in a new partnership – because there’s a certain level of expectation. It’s a credit to Will to win every event in the first year of a new partnership. He’s extremely motivated, he works extremely hard and we’re just working really hard together to the end goal. 

RC These kinds of sporting partnerships can be very intense, especially when one partner is senior and the other is more junior. How do you negotiate the power relationship between the two of you? 

MB It’s a really interesting question. I guess having that experience myself helped – I was 10 years younger than Malcolm. We certainly came into the London Olympics as firm favourites. My role was more to do with the decision-making and I had quite a lot of power. I know it can be very hard for the senior partner because you’re older and you’ve got the experience, and you’ve already relinquished some of that. Now I’m the older partner and Will is the younger one, and we have a team already where we’re two-times European champions, we’re two-times world champions. We approach it as 50/50, and it’s about forming a good level of communication and a good level of trust between each other. We’ve been able to do that very quickly, and I certainly learned a lot about my previous partners. I guess that helps.   

RC When you make mistakes in sailing, it’s not just a question of injury or losing a race. Mistakes can be quite dangerous. 

MB They certainly can be, depending on the type of wind we are out in, the elements, and how far offshore we are. We’re several kilometres out into the ocean and if something goes wrong in those moments you’re looking after each other a lot. In sailing you will make mistakes. There are so many variables – where you go on the course, where you start – a lot of it is about your preparation and risk strategy and risk management. A lot of decisions have already been made before you get to the start line and these have quite a big impact on how you perform. You’ve just got to try to make less mistakes than your next best competitor. 

RC There’s been a lot of discussion about whether you’ll compete in the Sydney to Hobart this year. Have you made a decision yet? 

MB I have. I’ve decided not to compete this year. One of the biggest drivers for that is that we would like to spend more time at the 2016 Olympic venue, to get an understanding of the conditions over in Rio. We don’t have a lot of opportunity to get over there throughout the season. So instead of spending that time preparing for the Sydney to Hobart, we’ve decided to spend it in Rio.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "Wind in his sails".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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