Trans-Tasman rivalry on tap in Olympic sailing's 49er class
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) After going nearly four years without a defeat aboard their high-performance skiff, New Zealand pair Peter Burling and Blair Tuke were beaten in a regatta in Rio de Janeiro in mid-July.
Not just by anyone, mind you. The loss in the South American Championships was to their trans-Tasman rivals from Australia, Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen.
The stunning defeat, after 27 straight regatta victories, raised eyebrows around the boat basin and now makes for a terrific story line as the wild 49er class begins its run at the Rio Olympics on Friday.
Burling and Tuke certainly remain the favorites to upgrade their 2012 silver medal to gold. But they might be looking over their shoulders at Outteridge and Jensen, who rode the dominating Aussie tide on the English Channel in 2012 to claim the 49er gold medal.
Outteridge and Jensen have spent the last four years focusing more on their jobs with America's Cup syndicate Artemis Racing of Sweden than they have on the 49er class.
Burling and Tuke have joined Emirates Team New Zealand since the Kiwis' soul-crushing loss to Oracle Team USA in the 2013 America's Cup, but have also concentrated heavily on the 49er, one of the fastest and most exciting Olympic classes.
They've said that while the winning streak was nice, it's gold that they're focused on.
At the very least, Outteridge and Jensen have quickly gotten up to speed in the last several weeks.
And beating their rivals and former training partners?
''It was massive,'' Outteridge said. ''It was really important. We sort of won an event earlier in the year, too, but it was a very unofficial event, and Pete and Blair actually pulled out halfway through the event. We felt a little bit cheated there.
''But to do it in a proper event, at the South Americans, where pretty much the whole Olympic fleet was here, was quite good. Even though we still weren't at our best then, we've still improved a lot since then. It was massive on the psychology.''
Ah yes, the psychology. Sailors have always relied on skullduggery and perhaps some hijinks to get one over on their opponents, whether it's something that goes on out of view in the boatyard or perhaps something that's said at a news conference.
During the 2013 America's Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand had taken a seemingly unassailable lead when Jimmy Spithill, the Australian skipper of Oracle Team USA, was asked about his level of optimism in turning things around.
`'I think the question is, imagine if these guys lost from here, what an upset that would be,'' Spithill said. ''They've almost got it in the bag. That's my motivation.''
Kiwi skipper Dean Barker, sitting next to Spithill, looked as if he'd seen a ghost.
Oracle staged one of the biggest comebacks in sports to retain the Auld Mug. A faster boat helped, but Spithill's words may very well have gotten into Barker's head.
The boost to the psyches of Outteridge and Jensen came on the water. It remains to be seen if it will affect the Kiwi crew.
''It's not that we never knew we couldn't do it, but it reminds us it's not impossible,'' Outteridge said. ''It reminds ourselves, it reminds the fleet, and it reminds Pete and Blair that it's not as easy as it looks. They're very smart guys. They know how much time and effort's required to win events, but the Olympics is very special and we're going to draw on all our experience for this one.''
Outteridge and Jensen, known as ''Goobs,'' stepped away from Artemis in July. Outteridge said he spoke two years ago with syndicate head Iain Percy about how to handle the campaign for Rio. Percy won three Olympic medals for Britain, including two golds.
''We were going to take six months in the buildup. It didn't happen, but at least we had the final six weeks. It's been a big difference,'' Outteridge said.
They showed up in Rio, took a week off, and then got going.
''It's the longest we've been in one country for four years,'' Outteridge said. ''It makes us feel rested, relaxed and ready for racing.''
Burling and Tuke know what's ahead.
''There's been pressure on us,'' said Burling, who carried New Zealand's flag at the opening ceremony, with Tuke marching at his side. ''Certainly the target is on our back. We're happy with that.''
He said the winning streak was great, ''but that's not what we're about. We're trying to win in Rio. Everything we do is working toward that.''
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson