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Wilkins recalls sail of the century

Flashback: David's Olympic silver

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David Wilkins receiving his 1980 Olympic Games silver medal from Irishman Lord Killanin, who was president of the International Olympic Committee

David Wilkins receiving his 1980 Olympic Games silver medal from Irishman Lord Killanin, who was president of the International Olympic Committee

David Wilkins receiving his 1980 Olympic Games silver medal from Irishman Lord Killanin, who was president of the International Olympic Committee

Forty years ago at the Moscow Olympics, Malahide man David Wilkins and Jamie Wilkinson from Howth made history as they became the first Irish people ever to win Olympic sailing medals.

The duo won the silver medals after seven gruelling races competing against 14 other crews, and with the 40th anniversary of that historic event quickly approaching David took some time to reflect on what he calls the highlight of his long and storied career.

David, who now lives in the UK, represented Ireland at five Olympic Games and is a legendary figure in Irish sailing circles. As was the case with the majority of athletes back then, David was working full-time and received limited support as he looked for sponsors to help fund his Olympic journey.

'That was my third Olympics and I had recently turned 30, so I was probably in my prime as a sailor at that stage. I had already competed in both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, so I had experience and went there really thinking we had a chance of getting a medal,' recalls David.

'Amazingly myself and Jamie had only come together as a pair about eight months earlier, so we hadn't spent too much time racing together at all. I knew Jamie a little bit from back in the early days when he was with Howth and I with Malahide.

'We then got to know each other a lot more when we raced with each other at Trinity, but we had never raced with each other after our college days. The year before the Olympics in Moscow, myself and my crew partner at the time Rory Staunton really began to ramp up our training in preparation for the games.

'Unfortunately, it just wasn't really working out and our performances in competition were quite average. I knew I had to do something quickly to find out why we weren't going so well, so I employed a full-time coach called Peter Sweetman to accompany us to a couple of big events and try to see where we were going wrong.

'After one of the races he came up to me and said you have to change your crew. He described Rory as being too static in the boat and advised me to find somebody else. It was a tough conversation with Rory as I told him that it wasn't working out, but it had to be done and the search for a new partner began quickly after that. I didn't want to go to the Olympics if we didn't have a chance of medalling and I knew time was against me as I looked for a replacement for Rory.

'I contacted Jamie Wilkinson and asked would he like to come and practise with me for two or three months. I was worried he may have been a bit too light for the Flying Dutchman Class, which was the boat we had, but we went out for a few practice sessions and we clicked pretty much immediately.

'In September 1979 we competed in several events and finished second in the first one and won the second. Uk top-three sailors regularly finished in the top 10 in world events at the time, so that was very encouraging.

'We decided to give it our best effort. Realising we did not have much time, we got some great practice out at Grafham Water near Huntington over the winter period and we were easily beating some very good crews, which gave us great confidence six months out from the Olympics.

'We got a new boat in November and we were finishing in the top 10 of competitions, which we were quite happy about as we were still tinkering with our set-up, but we also knew that we had to make a change in the boat to improve our upwind performance.

'Then we put in a new centrepoint two events before the Olympics and that was a huge turning point for us. Our speed was really good now and we won the final race in the World Championships a good five minutes clear of second place. Although nobody was shouting from the rooftops that we were favourites for the gold, we knew we were dark horses and were quietly confident going into the Games.

'The sailing events at the Moscow games were held in Tallinn in Estonia and throughout the seven races we were very consistent. It was slightly annoying that we didn't actually win any of the seven races, but we got four second places which helped us climb steadily up the leaderboard.

'We had one bad race where we finished 11th due to problems with our rudder, but we were hot on the heels of the Spaniards with two races to go. Had we won that second last race it would have been pretty much level going into the final race. Unfortunately a sudden 45-degree wind change proved crucial to our chances as it helped the Spaniards catch up to us, having been 25 seconds behind at the last mark.

'Sailing has so many variables, and no matter how confident you feel going into a race you are at the mercy of things which you have no control of such as the vagaries of the wind. The Spanish went on to win that second last race, which more or less guaranteed them the gold, and as we were so far ahead of third we were more or less guaranteed silver going into the final race.

'Because of that it was a relatively stress-free final race and the surge of excitement we both felt when we crossed the finishing line was overwhelming. It was especially sweet as I had always felt that I had a glorious chance to medal in my first Olympics in 1972, and that was one that had got away.

'Looking back now I also feel I should have medalled in 1988 with Peter Kennedy. However, circumstances beyond our control hit us. While leading by a big margin, we began to slow down. We realised that we had picked up a large plastic bag attached to our centreboard which was covered in tar.

'We had to capsize the boat, take off the bag, and then remove as much tar as we could from the centreboard. That cost us dear as we were first at the time and finished last.

'We also lost out in another race when a containership came through the course and we lost 15 places as a result.

'I enjoyed all five Olympic Games, but obviously 1980 will always hold special memories for me and it's just hard to believe that it all happened 40 years ago.'

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