Dave Feschuk: Sarah Douglas took ‘medal or nothing’ approach, finishes sixth in Tokyo Olympics regatta

Dave Feschuk: Sarah Douglas took ‘medal or nothing’ approach, finishes sixth in Tokyo Olympics regatta
TOKYO—If grasping the many nuances of Olympic-level sailing requires years spent in a boat learning to read the whims of the wind and the water, Toronto’s Sarah Douglas also trained for her debut at these Tokyo Games in the living room of her apartment in the Canary District.

When she wasn’t travelling the world racing on the World Cup circuit in the laser radial class, Douglas also spent time sweating through workouts on what’s called a hiking bench. “Hiking,” in sailing jargon, is the technique sailors use to balance a boat in full sail, essentially dangling themselves over the edge of the boat, leaning out over the waves.

In races that can last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on conditions — in an Olympic regatta that runs 11 races — Douglas says there were times when she was hiking for upwards of five minutes at a time. So it was a good thing she trained extensively to get better at holding the position, sometimes using a 10-pound weight to make it harder, sometimes rotating at the waist with a medicine ball for a challenging twist.

“Hiking is just so painful. It’s always really challenging,” Douglas said. “It’s a lot in the legs. I know my legs are going to take a while to recover from (the Olympics), because it’s just day over day over day of putting your legs in that situation. And you feel it a lot in the core.”

As sore as various muscle groups must have been after Douglas finished sixth in her first Olympic regatta, she said she was feeling a lot of support from back home to go with the burn. Though she’d come into Sunday’s medal race in fourth place — and though she had her eye on the podium — she said she was ultimately “honoured” to finish sixth, the best Olympic result ever achieved by a Canadian in a women’s individual sailing event.

Certainly it was hard not to respect Douglas’s approach to the medal race. Though she was racing against a field that included veterans of multiple Games, she didn’t allow her status as an Olympic rookie to limit her ambition.

“For me, it was a medal or nothing,” she said. “I kind of said to myself, I don’t care if I drop. I’m going out for a medal. And it didn’t quite work out. But I went for it, oh yeah.”

In the end, experience won the day. All three of the women who commanded the podium in Douglas’s event were competing in their third Olympics. The gold medallist, Denmark’s Anne-Marie Rindom, won bronze at the Rio Olympics five years ago. Silver medallist Josefin Olsson of Sweden finished sixth in Rio. And bronze medallist Marit Bouwmeester of Netherlands was the defending Olympic champion in the event, not to mention the silver medallist at the 2012 London Games and a two-time world champion.

Alas, she read it wrong. Navigating up the right side of the course, she finished 25th. A competitor with whom she’d been racing neck and neck chose the left side and finished eighth.

Sarah Douglas of Canada before competing in the women s laser radial races at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour at the Tokyo Olympics.

“Going into today’s medal race it was like, ‘Oh, if I had gone to the left, I would have been in a better position points-wise. I would have probably been in a silver or bronze medal position,’ ” Douglas said. “But you really can’t think like that for too long. It happens.”

If she’s possessed with the perspective of a sailor who’s been taking to the water since she was a seven-year-old growing up in Barbados — her brother, Gregory, competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics in sailing for Barbados and Canada, respectively — Douglas said it’s a priority of hers to see the sport become more welcoming to a wider demographic. Walking into yacht clubs around the world over the years, she says she’s too often the only person of colour in the place. As a member of a diversity and inclusivity committee in Canada, she’s aiming to help change that.

“Yacht clubs tend to have a privileged white background, so we’re trying to improve the situation and make sure the sport is welcoming to people from all backgrounds,” Douglas said. “I hope that we continue to see more people of colour in the sport of sailing.”

The sport, she said, is less exclusive as some might think. The type of boat she raced at the Olympics, the laser, costs about $14,000. But learn-to-sail programs at yacht clubs often provide a boat for those who’d like to begin to understand the basics.

“I got a message the other day from a photographer saying that he was at a youth regatta and saw a lot more people of colour, and he was really happy,” Douglas said. “He thinks that I’ve had that impact. So I was honoured he said that … Hopefully we can continue to increase the diversity and inclusivity of sailing.”

Maybe there’ll be no better way to inspire such increases in diversity and inclusivity than for Douglas, who sails at Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club when she’s in Toronto, to use the experience gained at these Olympics at the next Summer Games.

“(Sailing) has been everything to me,” she said. “My family, our life changed because of the sport of sailing. We had no sports background. And our lives completely changed. We went from living in a town to living at a marina, to having a boat, to having all family vacations revolve around sailing. I’ve gained so many different skills and qualities because of the sport of sailing, and really chasing this Olympic dream. And I’m hoping to continue to chase it.”
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