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470 class champion Mathew Belcher reflects on 17 straight wins

A lot of things need to fall into place to win a regatta. A crew needs to master their boat, the conditions and the competition to stand on the top step of the podium.

Australian 470 sailor Mathew Belcher has made a habit of winning, with the Queenslander claiming the last 17 regattas he’s contested, an incredible streak stretching back to November 2011.

Making the winning run all the more impressive is that Belcher has done it with two different crews, the first eight were with double Olympic gold medallist Malcolm Page and the next nine with long-time training partner Will Ryan, with Belcher and Ryan campaigning for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Included in the 17 wins is an Olympic gold medal, three World Championships and a European Championship, with Belcher recently named as a finalist for the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award. He’s also the first sailor in history to win 17 straight events and the first to claim four straight 470 World Championships.

“The winning run has been amazing, something that I’m personally really proud off,” said Belcher. “It gives us confidence that we’re on the right path. We know what we want to achieve and we seem to have an idea of how to get there.

“Most people don’t realise how much pressure this generates. As the regattas build up, the pressure compounds,” he said. “The fleet starts to focus more on you and you place more pressure on yourself to perform. The hardest part of this streak has been to remain stable, focused and motivated to perform every day you hit the water. These 17 events are spread over two years and a lot of credit has to go to our support team and coach for keeping us focused on the target.”

Belcher has been campaigning in the 470 class for more than a decade, winning Olympic gold at London 2012 with Malcolm Page, before teaming up with Will Ryan for a shot at back-to-back golds in Rio.

“After London 2012 making the decision to campaign again for Rio 2016 took some time,” said Belcher. “To commit to another four years for something you’ve already achieved wasn’t easy, I really wasn’t sure if I had the motivation. Will is an amazing sailor and I knew he was ready to replace Mal in the boat. Will and I did quite a bit of sailing together before London so it made the transition a bit easier.

“The most rewarding part for myself is going back and building the team relationship again,” he said. “Our coach Victor and I had so many things we wanted to do coming into London, we wanted the chance to explore new areas in the class and build on what we learnt on the way to gold. I was confident that Will and I would transition well, but didn’t expect to continue straight from where I left off. I’m very fortunate to have the support around me to make this possible.”

Belcher’s 17 straight wins have come in a range of conditions, with different scoring formats making it tougher than ever to come out on top.

“This year was probably one of the hardest I’ve had in terms of racing,” said Belcher. “At almost every event we did this year we had a modified format and we just tried to simplify the process and focus on what we could control. No matter what the format was the goal was simple, cross the line first. Then it didn’t matter what format was chosen for that event.

“A lot of variables have to come together in sailing to be winning in each individual race and sometimes you also need a bit of luck,” he said. “We just focused on controlling as many of these variables as possible and this year has given Will and I a lot of confidence to know that we can handle this pressure and come out on top. This isn’t something easy for a new team to cope with.”

The year after an Olympic Games can often see smaller fleets lining up for competition as crews take time off but in 2013 that’s been anything but the case in the 470 class with all of the top nations in action.

“This is what we love about the class, having eight, nine or even ten different nations in the medal race with anyone capable of winning,” said Belcher. “The quality of the fleet is very strong and I know that our results haven’t necessarily suggested this but we’ve certainly been lucky in some cases. Almost all of our events have been down to the last race or even the last tack or gybe. We’re training extremely hard to keep on developing to stay in front of the world and not rest on our successes. You’re only as good as your last event, right?”

A win at the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards would cap of an incredible couple of years for Belcher, with the 31 year old and his wife Rike recently having their first child, a son named Anton, while Belcher is also in the middle of studying for a Masters Degree.

“Hopefully it’s third time lucky with the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award,” said Belcher. “It would mean a lot, having come close on several occasions and would be a great reward for the consistency of performance over the four years to maintain this level, including winning the last four World Championships. But it’s just so hard to compare the finalists’ achievements as they all deserve to win. Time will tell.”

Belcher and Ryan will next be in action at the ISAF Sailing World Cup round in Melbourne in December, the event which their debut at together last year. The pair dominated in Melbourne in 2012, becoming the first crew to win every race at an ISAF Sailing World Cup round and will be out to challenge for gold again this year.

By Matthew Belcher

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