Polish Olympic Champion Mateusz Kusnierewicz is looking forward to lining up on the start line this week in Nassau, Bahamas, for the Star Sailors League Finals. Who wouldn’t be looking forward to it, when you’ve got such a roll-call of sailing legends ready to do battle on such beautiful blue waters? But more than anything, Kusnierewicz looks forward to taking pole position in the breakfast queue.
“This year I’m really excited to see Paul Cayard, Mark Mendelblatt, Xavier Rohart, Freddie Loof, all my old friends and rivals from the Star class,” says Kusnierewicz, who last competed at the Olympics in London 2012. “But this will also be my first time to sail against Paul Goodison, Loick Peyron and Franck Cammas. I’m looking forward to seeing them on the water of course, but these breakfast and dinners together where we are living in the same hotel, that’s going to be something really special. I have a few questions for these guys, particularly the French offshore legends.”
Kusnierewicz shot to international stardom back in 1996 when, aged just 21, he shocked even himself by claiming the Olympic gold medal in Savannah at the Atlanta Games. He then represented Poland at every Olympics until London 2012, but now he’s busy taking his career in a new direction. “I’m moving to ocean sailing, this is my future. I would like to spend another 10 or 20 years getting better in this part of the sport. I’m just beginning my new Polish ocean sailing project, and the kings of the ocean, Loick and Franck, will be in Nassau. So I’m looking forward to asking them about their experience, how to manage the team, what they think about technology, to get things from their perspective. I’m sure they won’t be able to tell me everything, but I think I will get many ideas from them.”
In return, of course, Cammas and Peyron will be only too keen to soak up any Star racing tips from Kusnierewicz, if he’s willing to share them, that is. “I’m always open to share, not everything, but to offer some tips and ideas. I remember last year, Sime Fantela, the Rio gold medallist in the 470, he was winning races. I shared my mast settings with him, and it wasn’t a problem for me to do that. It’s quite natural to share some information.”
Fantela took to the Star boat very quickly, winning three races in the light winds. The talented Croatian, who’s now campaigning a 49er for Tokyo 2020 with his brother Mihovil, was crewed by experienced Star sailor Antonio Arapovic. This is what helps get the VIP guests up to speed so quickly, having a veteran Star crew by their side to show them the ropes. And there are plenty of ropes to learn on a Star.
For Kusnierewicz and his old friend and team mate Dominik Zycki, he’ll be relying on muscle memory from his past experience in the Star. “I haven’t raced the Star since the SSL Finals last year, whereas other guys have been training hard in various places like Brazil and Lake Garda. When it comes to the start line, I always look around to see who’s who because I know the fleet well. I know the sailors’ different styles and how they like to sail, whether for speed or for height. People like Robert Scheidt and Xavier Rohart – they have distinct styles, they have different strategies and tactics. I know who likes to accelerate from behind at the start, so it’s important to decide who you want to start next to. Last year Sime Fantela was king of the light winds, so I wouldn’t dare to sail close to him because he was really fast out of the starts, for example.”
For Kusnierewicz, the knock-out format offers him the hope of doing well despite the lack of practice. He has twice finished on the podium, coming second three years ago, and third two years ago. “This format gives you a chance to learn again during fleet race qualification. It’s all about doing enough to qualify into the top 10 for the final rounds. And I can tell you I will give everything I’ve got – even when it’s painful and I believe I can’t hike any more. I will hike with straight legs and straight body. Probably the next day I won’t be able to get out of bed, but this is how it is and this is the way I’m coming into this regatta.
“Other guys will be much better prepared so maybe they would choose another format, but the SSL format gives me a chance and it gives the VIP guests a chance. It’s good to see how the SSL is working out interesting ideas for the rest of the sailing world to consider. At their recent conference in Mexico, World Sailing were very close to voting for having this format in the Olympics. I think one day we’ll jump into this format. So many friends of mine who don’t know about the rules and know nothing about sailing, they love the SSL because it’s so easy to understand. If you finish 4th in the last race, you’re 4th. And if you win, you win.”
Despite his lack of practice, Kusnierewicz is as determined now as he was as that 21-year-old who beat the odds to win gold in 1996. Even if he doesn’t win on the water, he’ll have won in the breakfast queue when he gets to meet some of his offshore sailing heroes, as the ambitious Pole plans his own assault on the world of ocean racing.
By Andy Rice, SailingIntelligence.com