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Editorial - Total Trust

Published Tue 06 Sep 2022

This editorial by Blue Robinson first sppeared in Seahorse Magazine, we thank them for their permission to publish it here.

Total trust. 

As a writer, I spend a lot of time listening to people talking. When I am interviewing someone, this becomes the most important part of my day, simply because they are giving me their time - and in sailing as in life, time is an incredibly precious commodity. Because of this, I check the two devices that I am using to record the conversation, and I review the questions that I plan to ask.

I reviewed these questions the day before, but things may have changed overnight. News emerging from their team or race results adjusted after late night hearings, and quite often the direction of the planned interview alters a little, after having sat fermenting in my subconscious for the past twenty-four hours.

Having confirmed that the practical side is good and I am comfortable with what I am going to discuss, I am happy to engage in the interview, which can start as rapidly as a tennis volley or as subtly as a badminton serve.

After I have asked my first question, I wait until they are talking and look down at my recoding devices, checking that the animated barcodes are jumping at a decent volume, and then I relax a little. The preparation has been done, the person is chatting and we are up and running. It is then that I really have a chance to listen closely to what they are saying, and because I am often speaking with the finest in our sport, it can be a joy to listen to. 

Mara Stransky

I love language. What you say - and of course what you don’t say, reveals a great deal. Change your language and change your life is an old saying, but it is true. Words are extremely important to me, and so when they are used well it is a pleasure to hear. There are many good speakers within our sport - Grant Simmer is one, and when he talks of the America’s Cup and what he has learned through the Alinghi, Oracle, and British Cup campaigns, that really is worth listening to. Shirley Robertson is another – her passion for the sport seeps deeply into all her conversations, and Tom Whidden is a master of reducing the complex - like simmering down a good sauce, to create something both powerful and palatable to consume.

If I feel that the interview is becoming too predictable, then it is not going to tell you, the reader, anything new. And so there are ways that I can stem the flood of vanilla platitudes coming my way, by dropping an almost imperceptible incendiary note into a question - so that my opponent detects a slight whiff of cordite and responds accordingly, bringing a tempo change, a flaring of the nostrils and narrowing of the eyes which adds colour both to their cheeks and to the story. It has to be subtle - my parry to their confident swordplay, but done with respect, it always helps the story come alive.  

And very occasionally, I have heard something so patently preposterous, that I have recoiled at the absurdity of it; my head tilting back in wide eyed surprise, which I then disguise with a slow, knowledgeable nod forward, to appear to agree with what I know is fundamentally false.

Elyse Ainsworth

Why I wonder, would they say this to me? Do they really believe this? Is there a monstrous ego driving all this, or is their position so mighty - or possibly so tenuous, that they simply cannot be wrong? My interpretation of the truth is clearly not their interpretation - and that is fine, but the fact is that after closely listening to people for so long, I have fairly good antennae for sincerity, truths, half truths, alternative facts, team players and great dollops of self interest.

And in late June, when I was working for the Australian Sailing Team when they were competing in Kiel Week, my antennae buzzed very loudly. 

I had been speaking remotely with the Australian coaches and athletes in 49er and FX classes, plus the Nacra teams, most of whom I know and all of whom I greatly admire. With this condensed Olympic cycle, I am fully aware of just how much all Olympians are trying to squeeze into their schedule before Paris 2024, and so it is a fascinating time to listen to athletes and coaches, now free to travel to Europe to train and compete after a lengthy lockdown, to juggle all the possibles and probables of training blocks and events. When it was time to interview each member of the Australian ILCA 6 squad of Mara Stransky, Zoe Thomson, Casey Imeneo and Elyse Ainsworth, I listened to the first squad member speak, then I stopped and stared at my phone. 

Zoe Thomson

Mara Stransky. ‘Back at the start we were very young and may have been overlooked in some respects, and that made us quite determined to turn that around. Plus, I think COVID helped our squad. We all live in different parts of Australia, and so it was a massive commitment to decide to continue to train together – and I was really lucky that the girls wanted that. We pretty much lived together during that time, as they put in a huge effort into training with me pre-Tokyo. This squad is super, super important, as it can be a tough and lonely road, particularly if you haven’t performed well and so having a squad there for you either way. It is really important.’

What I began to hear was a review of their individual performance, which they credited largely to the support of the squad around them. The next day I spoke with another squad member, and heard the same absolute and utter respect for their colleagues, resonating strongly in both what they said and how they said it. When on the third day I heard more of the same, I knew this was something special.

Elyse Ainsworth. ‘I think it took a long time for us to find our groove. When we were first put together there was very much that State divide as we are all from different parts of Australia, so it took a while to find our flow. I am stoked that we can be doing this together, then get off the water and still be very close with the friendship and camaraderie which is super important.  

We have had a few different coaches over the years and we have been through so much, that the only constant we had was each other, and that meant over time we really started to bond. The more we pushed each other - even when I didn’t do so well - I could see the others were achieving, and that proved our hard work and the processes were working. 

Pushing forwards and being a female in a male dominated sport meant this camaraderie we have is unique and very special. I think this is only the beginning for us and I really believe we can take it all the way, to be a very dominant squad within the ILCA 6 class. This is a really exciting for women’s sailing in Australia, as it feels like we are leading a very powerful pathway here.’

Casey Imeneo

This was not rehearsed, or fake or overdone, but was said to me with a quiet and powerful conviction and honesty. Casey Imeneo ended up spending six months away from her home in Victoria. When it was suddenly announced they would close the borders with NSW, to make the training camps on the east coat her brother drove her for several hours up to the border, in a rushed trip where she met up with other team members. From then on she lived with Mara Stransky’s grandparents up in Brisbane, who were about to move into their new house, with Casey already installed the spare room.

And so when the the ILCA 6 Medal Race took place in Kiel - which all four members of the Australian Squad competed in, and that Mara Stransky won by a hefty margin of 18 points to win that ILCA 6 event, I was glued to that race, then sat down and replayed each interview I had done with this squad, to again listen closely to what they said.
Zoe Thomson. ‘The support from your colleagues mean that you are not on this journey on your own. There are some really high highs and some low lows, and this means everyone is with you all the way through those. We celebrate together when we win, and pick each other up when we don’t do so well.’

I knew I had heard this level of conviction before, this solidarity and absolute respect for colleagues in an Olympic squad – but where? And then it hit me. This respect, this tight trust and support was verbalized to me in very similar terms by Iain Percy, Bart Simpson and Ben Ainslie – the GBR Finn squad, even after the key transition from 2000–2004 from Iain to Ben, this was exactly how they spoke of each other and what they meant to each other, as athletes and friends.      

Australian Sailing Team ILCA 6 squad (L-R): Ben Walkemeyer (Coach), Mara Stransky, Elyse Ainsworth, Zoe Thomson, Casey Imeneo

Elyse again.

‘What we talked about at the beginning of the year was, if one of us is in the top ten in the world later this year or next year but the rest of the squad are in the twenties, we would see that as – I don’t want to say as a failure, but that we could do better. I guess a lot of it comes down to respect and trust. Trust in each other and trust in yourself, respect for yourself and respect for each other, and the massive commitment involved here. Yes, throughout this journey someone will annoy you, yes you will pick up injuries, but at the end of the day we are going nowhere without each other.’

Total trust, total respect, absolute commitment. Something that is talked about a great deal, but when it is truly there, it carries an immense energy and clarity, meaning that it only needs to be whispered to be heard. 

Words by Blue Robinson/Seahorse Magazine