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How to Beat Burling

New Zealand’s 49er momentum could propel Peter Burling and Blair Tuke to the top of the podium in August — or, the pressure could be their downfall.

July 15, 2016
49er sailing Rio
New Zealand’s Burling and Tuke struggled in the 49er South American Championships, finishing an uncharacteristically “low” third and breaking their 27-regatta win streak. Fred Hoffmann/SIV Rio

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke have won every 49er Regatta they’ve sailed in since the 2012 Olympics — except for one. In some, like Keil Week in June, they go into the medal race with an unassailable lead. In others, they get themselves into a more vulnerable position, but in the end they still come out at the top of the pile. At the 49er South American Championships, July 13-14 2016, they finally fell from the top, finishing third behind Australia’s Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, and Poland’s Lukasz Przybytek and Pawel Kolodzinski.

The break of their streak comes at an interesting time for the class. They’re now going into the big finale of their Rio campaign without the added weight of “undefeated” on their shoulders. On the other hand, they’ve now revealed they are truly beatable, which may embolden some of their competition, whom Austrian 49er crew Nikolas Resch says had all but given up on hopes of Rio gold.

“Sailing is an imperfect sport,” says Resch. “The advantage they had was that people have given up on trying to beat them. It’s not the right attitude. You should always try, at least. The Olympics is it’s own event.”

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Resch says that Burling and Tuke’s biggest strengths are their speed and their ability to point higher than the fleet. “Even if they have a bad start, they’ll usually finish at the top,” says Resch. “They have an easy time moving through the fleet and their consistency of high finishes is has certainly been their strength, in the end.”

Team Nickomania, as Resch and teammate Nico Delle Karth call themselves, are ranked second in the 49er World Sailing rankings, behind Burling and Tuke. They haven’t given up on the gold in Rio just yet, but with Burling and Tuke’s proven track record of success, Resch says it’s really the Kiwi’s medal to lose.

“There’s so much pressure on them, and the venue is extremely challenging,” says Resch. “It all comes down to four days in the Olympic regatta, and there may not be all that many races. Each race will be vital, and mistakes will be costly.”

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It’s here that Resch says Burling and Tuke may have a chink in their armor. “They sometimes struggle with starts,” says Resch. “In Rio, one side of the course is often so favored that even with their excellent boat speed, they wouldn’t be able to climb up the leader board. In a strong fleet like this, the starts are challenging and that could be an advantage that we will have over them.”

49er sailing Rio
Australia’s Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen took the South American Championship, unseating their 49er class — and America’s Cup — rivals Burling and Tuke. Fred Hoffmann/SIV Rio

Being second to New Zealand in the rankings is no small feat in itself. The international 49er fleet is deeply talented. “There are nine or ten teams in this class that could medal in the Games,” says Resch. “So many sailors in this fleet sail in the America’s Cup and in other highly competitive fleets that it really speaks for itself as far as the competitiveness.”

Of course, Resch admits, every Olympic sailor will say his class is the strongest and most competitive. “It’s not like we, as second in the world rankings, had it easy to get there and stay there,” he says. “Our focus will be on achieving any medal, rather than focusing on winning the gold medal. In this class, that will be a huge feat.”

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“The key is to perform consistently enough to stay ahead of the other teams, and hope Pete and Blair make some mistakes that help us move up as well,” says Resch. “If they do, it’s vital to be right behind them to be able to take advantage.”

It was the final event before Rio 2016 where Burling and Tuke finally fell, making a handful of small mistakes that landed them with a higher-than-normal scorecard, including one thrown-out 15th place finish, leaving them with two fourths, a seventh and an eighth weighing them down.

With three weeks to go before the Games, Burling and Tuke will still have the target on their backs as the team to beat in the men’s high performance skiff. The target now, though, seems a little closer for some.

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