Richard Clarke, the skipper half of the Star-boat team that is Canada’s best chance for an Olympic sailing medal, was an emotional wreck last fall. His seven-year-old daughter Zoë was ill and as far as Clarke and his wife, Andria Scanlan, could tell, she had come down with a bad case of NMD – Need More Dad.
Between professional sailing and the Olympic racing campaign, Clarke was making only the rarest of appearances at the family home in Salt Spring Island, B.C. In 2011, he was away 300 days. His sailing partner, Tyler Bjorn, the father of two youngsters, was not gone as much, but certainly enough to put a strain on his family in Beaconsfield, Que.
Clarke was on the verge of deep-sixing the Olympic campaign. “The Olympics ar e a big dream but also a big sacrifice,” he says during a chat last month in the Clarke/Bjorn team’s rented house on the Côte d’Azur, where the duo raced in the Star world championships. “We’re a tight family and being away so much was a massive amount of pain. I didn’t want to lose my family over this.”
Bjorn wanted the team to stay intact – half a team is the same as no team – but didn’t push his buddy hard. “He needed to do some soul-searching,” Bjorn says. “I told him to do what he needed to do, but felt we had a chance to win.”
Clarke is 43, Bjorn 42, which puts them among the more seasoned Olympians. Each knew it would be game over if he were to abandon the London Games. They would be over the hill by the time the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics came around.
In the end, it was Andria who came to her husband’s emotional rescue. She told him to live his dream. “She said, ‘Quit your pro-racing job, not the Olympics,’ ” Clarke says.
So he did, and the Clarke/Bjorn machine was waterborne once again. But that didn’t mean the Olympic effort would be any easier. The expense and logistics of campaigning around the world – the boys have two Stars – are horrendous. Then there is the matter of Clarke’s ability to deal with racing pressure. The 2000 Games in Sydney still haunt him. By then he was world champion in the Finn class (Finns are 4.5-metre dinghies with one sail) and was favoured for gold. He placed 14th, making him, in his own words, “an Olympic tourist.”
It is just after 8 in the morning on Tuesday, May 8, and the team is digging into cereal and strawberries in the rental house, which is about a 10-minute drive from the Hyères port that is playing host to the Star world championships. Actually, breakfast is the cover. It’s really a prerace strategy and pep-talk session.
Clarke is reviewing detailed weather charts on his laptop to determine the probable strength and direction of the wind for the 80-boat race that is to begin at noon. He is joined by coach Steve Mitchell, 42, a Briton who lives in Toronto and who was the crew of the team that won the 2002 Star world championships.
Joining them is Pete Levidis, 39, of Outremont, Que., the athletic trainer whose job it is to ensure the two sailors are in top physical shape and avoid the type of injury that would nuke their campaign. Since Star sailors spend the upwind legs of races hanging their butts over the water to counterbalance the high pressure on the two sails, back and leg injuries are, in particular, dreaded.
In the kitchen is Mitch Stanton, 23, from near Windsor, Ont. Equipped with two earrings and a scooter, he is chief cook, bottle washer, grocery getter and boat slave. Before each race, he is ordered overboard to wipe the hull free of algae and grime.
But where is Bjorn? “He’s probably dancing naked to classical music in his room,” Clarke says. That’s a reference to their peculiar ways of dealing with pressure. Bjorn, outwardly gregarious, loves his privacy and sleeps in the poolside hut, well away from the madding crowd in the main house. (He’s also prone to watching Family Guy on his iPad in the bathtub.) Clarke, who seems more intense and broody, actually adores being around people.
Both use the services of Colin Guthrie, the team’s “mental health consultant,” who was not in Hyères. He has concluded that Clarke and Bjorn are pussycats beneath their burly, aggressive exteriors. When he assessed them last year, he wrote that “despite being alpha male studs, they were all deathly afraid of hurting each others’ feelings.”
The number of team members – six, including the two sailors – gives you an idea of the complexity of a Star campaign. And that’s a thin staff compared to some of the most competitive teams. Clarke remembers the hot-shot British Star racers arriving at one recent event with a crew of 14, including their boat builder.
Stanton, the cook, is a recent addition to the Clarke/Bjorn team, which was having trouble finding enough time to keep the racing effort intact. On-the-water time is minor compared to the rest of the activities. “We just don’t sit around and drink martinis, which is the image a lot of people have about boat racers,” Clarke says.
Fundraising demands enormous amounts of time. The budget for the 2012 racing schedule to the end of the Olympics, including the $90,000 cost of the new Star boat, is $580,000. The two boats suck up much of the loot. They are forever being shipped around the world in containers. The cost of a single transatlantic voyage is about $5,000. The two Dacron racing sails cost $3,000 and last a week before they have to be replaced, because they stretch out of shape.
“Star racing is very technical and involved,” says Mitchell, the coach. “It’s not just being a sailor. You have to be a mechanic, a PR person to raise money, and an expert in logistics to move the boats around the world.”
You also have to be a superb sailor.
Clarke and Bjorn are among the top sailors on the planet. Clarke, the son of an Olympian Finn sailor, was ranked No. 1 in the Finn class in 2000 and has competed in four Olympics; London will be his fifth.
Bjorn, whose father and brother were Olympian sailors, is a former skilled Finn sailor, though not at Clarke’s level. “I couldn’t beat him, so I joined in the Star,” Bjorn says.
They have been together on the Star – the biggest Olympic boat, at 6.9 metres – since 2009. Their best result was gold in the 2010 Star Western Hemisphere races in the Bahamas. They placed third in the European championships in both 2010 and 2011. “They are definitely one of the contenders for a medal,” says Iain Percy, the Briton who is an Olympic gold medal winner in both the Star and the Finn classes and the man to beat in the London Games.
In spite of their skills, they did not place well in the Hyères world championships, finishing 18th overall. “Let’s start by saying that today totally sucked,” one of Clarke’s blogs read after their particularly disastrous fourth race.
Still, there is no doubt that Clarke and Bjorn have the skills to nab a medal in London, says John Curtis, president of Wind Athletes Canada, which funds and promotes competitive Canadian sailors, including the Clarke/Bjorn team. But it will take luck as well as skill, and the ability to handle pressure-cooker stress. “Richard has gone into two Olympics favoured to win a medal and came up short,” Curtis says.
Clarke hopes it’s third time lucky. But win or lose, there is a prize at the end: more time with his wife and daughter. “There will be some repairing to do with the family after all this,” he says.