For many Olympic sailors, the story starts out the same way. Around six or seven years old, they get a peek into competitive sailing, and a spark is ignited. From then on, the goal is clear: sail in the Games. For Australia’s Jake Lilley, the same spark did light, but his goal at first was never to sail. He wanted to be a triathlete representing Australia in the Olympics. “There was never a doubt in my mind since that day that it was what I wanted to do,” says Lilley.
A few years later, pre-teen Lilley was growing rapidly — too rapidly. It quickly became evident that he would be too tall and too big to be a triathlete or an elite cyclist. His childhood friend was a sailor, and following a bike accident invited him to go sailing on a Puffin Pacer — a small dinghy that Lilley describes as “worse than a club 420”. “I decided it was pretty awesome,” he says. “Better than either of those two aforementioned sports. In 2008 an Olympic coach [Adrian Finglas] approached me and asked if I could sail. I told him I could, a little bit, which was exaggerating, and he then asked me if I wanted to go to the Olympics, and I said yes.”
From 2008 until 2012, Finglas guided Lilley through the competitive sailing ranks. “He really gave me everything he had,” says Lilley. “He was there every morning with me, training.”
They tried the Laser Radial and then the Laser, but it quickly became clear that at 6 foot 7 inches and over 200 pounds, Lilley had one option left — the Finn. As soon as the 2012 games ended, Lilley bought one and began to sail.
“In my opinion, the Finn is the truest Olympic class because it embodies every kind of facet required to be a top sailor,” says Lilley. “It has all the elements.” True to his triathlete roots, Lilley’s favorite part of sailing the Finn is the physical side- specifically, the free pumping. “It’s a skill you have to refine,” says Lilley. “Certainly you can’t be finessed without the physicality and strength.” To train for it, he spends time rowing, both on the water and in the gym, as the movements are similar and they compliment each other.
“Finn sailing is racing on the edge the whole time,” he says. “It’s like being on max reps the entire way around the race course. Your brain and your glasses fog up when you’re doing that for a long time and you’re at your threshold. It makes the racing more interesting, when everyone is on their edge.”
Lilley has spent time with many of the world’s top Finn sailors, including Tom Slingsby and Giles Scott. While they are all buddies on land, as soon as they hit the water it’s all intensity, all the time.
“It’s a fantastic sport and the racing adds another level of competition,” says Lilley. “You have to be so in tune with your boat, your mind and your physicality before you can even begin playing the tactical warfare of sailboat racing. It’s seriously addictive.”
Lilley won the Australian Finn spot a month ago after a sixteen-month selection period, and is currently ranked fifth in the world at 22 years old. “Hopefully I’m an example for those who aren’t five years old and want to start to sail,” he says. “It’s still possible, if you work at it, and if you work harder than anyone else. That’s always been my motto and has always put me in a strong position.”