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Long road to the water's edge

‘It’s hard to sort of say, “well actually I’m going to be good enough here, and I’m going to back myself, and I’m going to risk all these securities”.’ Photo: David Branigan
‘It’s hard to sort of say, “well actually I’m going to be good enough here, and I’m going to back myself, and I’m going to risk all these securities”.’ Photo: David Branigan
Matt McGovern and Ryan Seaton. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
John Greene

John Greene

First impressions can be dangerous. And when you first encounter Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern it is easy to fall for their double act of charm and good humour. Unless of course that first encounter is on the water, in the white heat of competition.

Beneath their winning smiles, impeccable politeness and easy manner lies a ferocious drive and determination that over eight years of hard work and tireless dedication has brought these sailors to the top of their game.

And as a snapshot of their standing in the 49er class, the world championships in Florida last January is a good place to start. Owing to circumstances beyond their control, their boat did not arrive in time for the event. "One of our friends said you may as well not go, you're going to come last," says McGovern.

Sailors spend hundreds of hours setting their boat up exactly the way they want it, down to the last millimetre, practising over and over again with different settings until they are certain everything is just as it should be. So, to describe the failure of their boat to arrive as a setback is an understatement. But what happened next tells us a lot about this duo from Ballyholme Yacht Club in Bangor: they chartered a boat locally, raced for their lives and finished tenth in an elite field.

"The fact that we could turn up and be top 10 at the world championships with unknown equipment just shows that we can do it and it's not all about the boat," says Seaton. "That was a big learning thing for us, that we could jump into any of the boats and go and perform and that's a big confidence boost."

There is no chance of a similar malfunction in Rio. When we meet in Dublin city centre, the two sailors have just returned from the Olympic venue, making sure that everything is in order and are happy to report that their equipment has arrived safe and sound. Their first day's racing is not until August 12, so they will head back to Brazil on Wednesday to begin final preparations. The reality is, though, that all the hard work is done. Now it's all about the last eight years gearing up for this moment, and about realising and accepting that they are as ready as they will ever be.

McGovern and Seaton performed well in London, placing 11th, but from the moment they teamed up for the first time in the winter of 2008 they always spoke of an eight-year plan. Getting to London four years ago was a bonus, but in hindsight they see that it came a year to soon for them.

"We felt like we were in a rush at the time," says McGovern. "We had this jobs list of all the things we want to accomplish and we never had a chance of getting to the end of that list before the Olympics arrived. We were working right up to the day where as now we're in maintenance. The level we're at in the last few weeks is the level we're at for the Games, we're just maintaining that. We're still trying to learn things right up to the first day of the Olympics . . ."

Seaton jumps in: "Also, the guys we're racing against in London had already done previous Olympics and had medal experience, like the Kiwi guys [America's Cup professionals Peter Burling and Blair Tuke], they had all the experience and they are the favourites this time. Now we've been through the whole thing ourselves and we've proven that we can compete against these guys. Because we're a bit more mature we know that when we turn up at the Olympics we can definitely perform well and perform at the top of the fleet. It's important to be able to realise that as well."

Since last August, the pair have spent almost 200 days away from home, racing and training and leaving nothing to chance in their quest to be the best that they can be in Rio. This has included numerous visits to the city to practice on what they think is a unique course, "tricky, with lots of different currents and backdrops", according to Seaton. McGovern thinks it will be the best all-round sailor who will win, that it won't suit a specialist in one type of conditions. Won't luck be a factor? "My old man always says, it's funny how winners are always the lucky people," he replies.

"You can only do what you can do, you can control what you can control - we just try to go into it with a positive frame of mind and look after those variables that are under our control. The maturity level that we have and the understanding that we have we're probably at the best level we can be.

"We might look back on this in 10 years' time and think, gosh I thought I had it all sorted in my mind and I thought I was brilliant then but I've learned so much more. But right now, today, I think we feel we've moved on a lot from London, we know ourselves better and we know what we're going to do to help each other perform better and I think that does make us feel a little more relaxed. Of course the pressure's always there in the background but you can't think about it because it doesn't make it any better, does it?"

At 28, Seaton is three years McGovern's junior and although they are from the shores of Belfast Lough - Seaton from Carrickfergus, McGovern from Bangor - they did not really know each other before embarking on this grand adventure. They certainly could not have known that they were both possessed of an extraordinary determination to succeed.

"After the Beijing cycle, I was looking for someone to race with and Ryan's name was the one that was at the top of the pile from the sports bodies so that was where I thought, 'oh yeah that would be worth looking into'," says McGovern. "It's funny how that comes about when you think back on it . . . we maybe didn't know each other that well but we'd been around each other. Like, we did a fitness camp in Lanzarote one winter together, and that was probably the first time we'd ever really spent any time together.

"When I was looking for somebody new Ryan was probably a bit younger than the other people who were options - and some of the other options had Olympic experience and that sort of thing - but as soon as I spent a week hanging out with him I was like this guy's got a real hard work ethic and that's the kind of thing I'm looking for more than anything.

"I pretty much said, 'do you want to be involved, and, we'll do some sailing together shorter-term and see how it looks and then if we're happy after the first season we'll put the pedal down and give it everything and that's us signed up and committed until the end'. And from the start, the end was always Rio. That was the focus."

For Seaton, it meant a big change, moving out of the single classes. "From the start we both had the same ambition, and the same drive, and we wanted to achieve the same goal and it didn't really matter if I was going to achieve it in a Laser on my own or whether I was going to achieve it in a 49er with Matt.

"I remember sitting with my dad talking about whether I should go to the double class or not because at the time I didn't know Matt, I didn't know what his commitment was and I kind of felt I knew I had this goal of going to the Olympics but never really thought anyone would work as hard as me. I never thought anyone would commit as much but we bumped into each other and we knew we were both a bit crazy . . . there's not many people who can do this, especially for eight years and I think we've been very lucky. There's lots of young talented sailors, even around our age from our yacht club who were all talk but they never actually . . ."

The thought hangs for a second, before McGovern continues the thread: ". . . taken that leap of faith in themselves. That's the hard bit I think. It's fine now when you are where we are, on the funding system, and we're top 10 in the world or whatever. But whenever you're nobody and you're just a kid with all those other pressures like parties and girls and schools and university, well a lot of people see their pathway in going to work, it's hard to sort of say, 'well actually I'm going to be good enough here, and I'm going to back myself, and I'm going to risk all these securities' . . .

"We know a lot of people who are actually really talented but they never really had the work ethic. Like there's people out there who don't actually have natural talent, there's people who've been on the Olympic team before who definitely weren't the most talented but they had more drive than anyone else and that's why they get to where they get to. They don't give up and I think that's a big thing, probably one of my biggest elements that I would look for in someone that I will be doing anything with, or even to train with. I want someone who is going to give 100 per cent."

And this is what has got them to this point. They had a plan, a good plan as it turns out, and stuck to it. They train with the ­Australian pair who won gold in London, they set out to qualify for the Olympics at the first qualifying event almost two years ago, and succeeded, so they could have the maximum lead-in time to prepare, and they have beaten all the medal contenders at some point.

"If we look back six years, or even the start of the cycle, four years, we've ticked every box that we wanted to tick: we've said we wanted to qualify early, we said that we wanted to prove that we can win medals, so everything's in place and now we've just got to go and enjoy the Olympics and give it our best shot."

They understand too that they have been fortunate to come to Irish sailing at the right time. All the structures and conditions required for a proper high performance set-up have been put in place, and continue to improve. "When you see the young guys doing well it motivates us to do well and I guess when they see us going to the Olympics it motivates them," agrees Seaton. "There's been a lot of hard work going on in the background. Irish sailing is definitely improving."

And they say they are feeding off the success of other sports, like the Irish rugby team, the boxers and even Rory McIlroy.

"More and more people just pop up," says McGovern. "We spend a bit of time in the gym, we see Olympic boxers there, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and whenever you talk to them . . . you know it's quite funny we come from a sport where there are so many variables. The best guy won't win every week, the best guy might be first this week, second that week, so most Olympic sailors are pretty content with an Olympic medal, at least they were there or thereabouts. But when you talk to those guys they are devastated if they come second and that mentality is throughout their sport. But it's also feeding into the other sports because we see it and other sports see it. It is amazing how success breeds more success."

Annalise Murphy's performances over the last four or five years is another case in point. "She showed us the path, she showed what we can all achieve as sailors in Ireland. One thing Ryan and I always ask is, do people just want to go to the Olympics? That's kind of like a waste. Annalise showed that we can go and do well and medal."

T-minus 12 days, and counting.

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