To some, sailing may seem like more of a recreational activity than an Olympic sport. But Nikola Girke and Luke Ramsay know better, and on Friday the pair qualified Canada for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a day ahead of what they may have expected.
Girke, who's been to the Olympics three times and Ramsay, once, have been partners for the last four years in Nacra 17 sailing.
- ISAF Sailing World Cup regatta continues in Miami Saturday. Watch live on CBCSports.ca at 11 a.m. ET
To qualify for the Olympics the Canadians needed to only beat the Puerto Rican team. Heading into Friday, Canada sat only two positions ahead, but they outperformed their opponents in three of their races on the day, scoring 8, 3, 11 and 13 to the Puerto Rican's 20,18, 3 and 14 (the lower the score, the better), stretching their overall lead to 84 points, more than the Puerto Rican's would have been able to make up in Saturday's single race.
Canada didn't win a sailing medal at the 2012 London Olympics. The results led to funding cuts which left Girke and Ramsay responsible for handling their own campaign to raise money, organizing travel and accommodations for training and competitions, and covering the costs of maintenance and shipping for their boat.
That's a lot of demands, especially when they're spending 10-11 months each year on the road.
"We have to work that much harder than some of the other teams who are told when their boat will be arriving, and have people planning for them so that all they have to think about is sailing," said Ramsay on a call from Miami. "It's a lot of extra work, but at the end of the day we still get the same training time as everyone else, and we still get the opportunity to race."
Nacra 17 is the type of boat used in the class that Ramsay and Girke will be competing in this weekend. The 139-kilogram boat is a Catamaran, meaning it has two hulls. One of the two athletes on board must be male and the other female. Races have around 50 boats trying to get through the course as quickly as possible, adding to the difficulty as everyone battles for the best wind line.
"It's not like cycling or race car driving where people try to draft off of each other," said Girke during race week in Miami. "You want to be first to hit that wind line, and if crews are in front of you catching the wind, you're going to be catching less than they are, and as the race goes on that accumulates. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, so to speak."
A great birthday gift
The competition will finish Saturday, while Ramsay's birthday is on Sunday.
"My parents are coming into town at the end of the event," he said to CBC earlier in the week. "We're going to be having a good time on Saturday night, that's for sure."
The duo has been competing together for more than three years now. They're around each other for most of their days — traveling, on the boat, in the weight room, debriefing with their coach, all under high stress. This is an everyday routine, so trust is very important.
"Over a four-year journey if you're not having fun, things are going to break down, and that happens to a lot of teams," said Ramsay. "If that breaks down, training can become ineffective and the crew can eventually split up. There's definitely more to it than skill on the boat."
Girke has competed in three Olympics to Ramsay's one, and is about 10 years older. But even with this, she doesn't feel she has taken a mentorship role and believes firmly in being treated as equals.
"If there was some sort of balance, then someone would feel as though they weren't getting their respect," she said. "We each have our strengths and our weaknesses, so all we do is focus on capitalizing on each other's strengths."
The Charlie course at Key Biscayne has the breeze coming over the key, causing it to be changing all the time. Fifty boats dealing with different variables all have to look to the water ahead to see how the wind is hitting the water so that they can find the best wind and angle to be the fastest.
"You have to look at all of the other boats, you have to look at what you have, and you have to act in your 'now,'" said Girke of the turbulent environment. "A mirror of life so to speak."
After this weekend's regatta, Canada has now qualified for nine out of 10 Olympic sailing events. The men's 49er is the only event Canada has not qualified for.
From now until June, Canada's top sailors will continue to compete at various events. Their performances and scores will be evaluated by Sail Canada to determine whether they will be competing this summer in Rio.
Sail Canada will nominate their team to the Canadian Olympic Committee in mid-June.