Sailing has never been a pastime that many people in Cyprus paid any attention to but one man has single-handedly put the island on the map with his achievements – so much that the island-nation’s first Olympic medallist and world champion sailor has had a stamp issued in his honour.
Pavlos Kontides is in Melbourne to compete in next week’s 2020 STD Men’s Laser World Championships at Sandringham Yacht Club as part of his preparations for the Tokyo Summer Olympics which start on 24 July. He is in the top five in the world and all his competitors are here to prepare for Tokyo.
Mr Kontides became Cyprus’ first Olympic medal winner when he won the silver at the London Olympics in 2012. He had come 13th at his first Olympics, in at Beijing. The previous year, at 17, he became the world junior champion. He took the ILCA World Championship in 2017 and 2018 and been a silver medallist twice.
Last year, he tested the Olympic waters at Enoshima, Japan and won the gold medal before the last race of the regatta there. So things may be looking good for the Cypriot – but there is still the qualifying to get through.
This being an Olympic year there is room for only 36 teams to compete at the Olympics so the competition to get in will be fierce. In a world championship series, the field is much larger, he would normally race against 150 competitors.
The Cypriot champion, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics, is duelling with competitors who come from a long tradition in the sport – Australian, New Zealand, French, German, British and Croatian sailors – and he is more than holding his own.
“But the main competition is against myself,” Mr Kontides told Neos Kosmos. “Sailing has a lot of parameters to consider, you have to try and minimise your errors, particularly in the earlier part of a championship event.”
And the demands are gruelling. The focus has to be constant over a championship event (regatta) that lasts up to six days. In Melbourne, there will be two races a day starting on Monday with, wind and weather permitting, to start in the early afternoon.
“Sailing is very mentally demanding, it is tactical and physically demanding – a bit like riding hard on a bicycle up a hill while playing chess at the same time. You also have to be aware what the winds, waves and currents are doing.
Mr Kontides has been sampling conditions in Melbourne for nearly two weeks and he noted how quickly conditions change here.
“In a big championship event like this, you have to be prepared for it all,” he said.
Then there is keeping a careful eye on what the competitors are doing in a race but even then you have to be careful because what may work for the one may not work for whoever is coming behind.
“You feel the boat, you have to be one with it. You can watch the others as a reference (for the conditions) but that can be difficult.”
“Getting too emotional can cost you,” he said. Keeping an even keel in your mind is as important as all the physical preparations a sailor needs to be at the top of his sport.
Training for sailing is a year-round occupation. In world championship year there are up to nine races in the calendar, in an Olympic year there are fewer.
“There are 10 Olympic boat classes – the Laser class is the cheapest but the sport is an expensive one as you have to transport the boat and equipment wherever you have to race.”
Then there is a strong fitness component. He works out on the gym to build up his core power and endurance.
“You need a high level of fitness as it very physically demanding when the wind is up.”
In Cyprus few knew much about sailing boats. “When I told people people I raced boats, they always thought I meant rowing, not sailing.”
His father, Panayiotis, raced his wooden FINN sailing boat in Limassol and was winning national races. He came close to representing Cyprus at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. So the young Pavlos, aged nine, tried his hand sailing in the beginner Optimist boat and he enjoyed it.
“I was big for my age so that I moved to the Laser when I was 12, three year earlier than most kids do and I began working out in the gym to build up my strength and stamina.”
“I visited Athens to watch the sailing at the Olympics in 2004 and a fire ignited in me when I saw the flags of the nations fluttering at the top of the masts. I knew I wanted to compete,” he said.
When he won the Youth World Championships in 2007, he realised that he had the potential and that with right people behind him he could achieve much. He took on Jozo Jakelic to be his coach and he now spends much of his time training in Croatia, enough time to master the language as well.
“One of my dreams is to expand the sport in Cyprus. Greece has a lot of marinas and the sailing culture is strong there.
“The problem there is that many thousand children start at early age in the Optimists but a lot of them lose interest when they have to transfer to the Laser class where it is more physically demanding and more competitive,” said Mr Kontides.
As part of his pursuit to raise the profile of the sport in Cyprus, Mr Kontides is running an athletic responsibility campaign, Towards Tokyo, to support athletes who want to qualify for the Olympics.
His campaign is helping five athletes reach their Olympic goals through the sale of a cap and T-shirt (see photograph). The money raised from the sale of the items will go to meeting the athletes’ needs be it for equipment, clothing, treatments and training. To find out more go to his website www.pksailingshop.com for more details.
As for his future, Mr Kontides is still hungry to do more.
“Age-wise, I can still compete in Paris, but let’s see after Tokyo first,” he said. One of the sportsmen he admires is Brazillian sailing legend Robert Scheidt who will be racing in Melbourne and who will be hoping to be competing in his seventh Olympics. Another athlete he admires for his tenacity is tennis great Roger Federer.
“I admire him for his mental strength to be still competing at his age with the fire still burning inside him,” said Mr Kontides.
But for now it’s all about doing well at Sandringham Yacht Club.
If you want to see Pavlos Kontides in action at the Sandringham Yacht Club in Melbourne there are a few things that you need to know:
• The 2020 STD Mens Laser World Championships starts on Monday and runs for the next six days.
• Each day, weather permitting, there will be two races. If there is too much or too little wind the races may be postponed. The organisers will hold extra races in the ensuing days to get in a full regatta of 12 races.
• The races will usually start in the early afternoon but if days are lost through the weather, then there may be some late morning starts later in the regatta.
• Sailors are scored in each race with the winner getting one point, second place two, third place three and so on. The winner of the regatta is the sailor with the lowest score.
• Every sailor can discard their two worst scores so only their best 10 races of 12 count.
• Each race lasts about 40 minutes and the sailors stay on the course in between races.
• Sandringham Yacht Club will be open to members of the public to watch the racing from the club decks or be close at hand to watch the competitors prepare the boats.
• There will be free parking in the nature reserve above the Sandringham Yacht Club premises.
• A set of binoculars on hand may also enhance the experience.
• Download the app Laser 2020 to keep up to date with the racing, weather conditions and other information during the regatta.