Five years ago, Santiago Lange and Cecilia Caranza Saroli (ARG) set the Games alight with their victory in the Mixed Multihull – Nacra 17 event at Rio 2016. Santiago Lange is the Captain of SSL Team Argentina for SSL Gold Cup 2022, the pioneer event like the world cup in football but in sailing.
First was the fact that Lange was 54 years old competing in one of the fastest, most athletically challenging events in Olympic sailing. The second was that the Argentinean had scarcely recovered from lung cancer, having had 80% of his left lung removed less than a year earlier.
Just a few weeks short of his 60th birthday will Lange and Carranza Saroli, repeat their gold medal winning heroics of Rio 2016? The Argentineans are certainly ranked among the favourites. But there are many other favourites too in a technical class where new breakthroughs are arriving month after month. No one quite knows who’s going to show up at Tokyo 2020 with a new technique that could be the winning difference.
The Nacra 17 broke new ground in Olympic sailing when it was launched in time for the Rio 2016 Olympic cycle. It was the first event in Olympic Sailing that required mixed gender teams. Since this high-performance 17ft catamaran burst on to the scene eight years ago, crews have been experimenting with which way round works best: male helm/ female crew or female helm/ male crew. Both combinations have proven successful so maybe it doesn’t seem to make that much difference. What is vital is that the helm and crew work in complete harmony, keeping this tricky twin-hulled seesaw in balance at all times. When the Nacra 17 was launched for the four-year cycle leading up to Rio, it was already extremely challenging as a ‘semi-foiler’.
Soon after Rio 2016 had been completed, the Nacra 17 was upgraded to becoming a fully foiling machine, capable of flying above the surface. This makes it faster but also more demanding to sail, and it keeps the helm and crew on their toes for every second that they’re foiling over the waves. Nosedives and splashdowns can strike with very little warning, meaning that no race lead is ever guaranteed.
The upgrade of technology has seen a few changes in the pecking order. Italy’s squad came to the fore in the early days of full foiling. Ruggero Tita and Caterina Banti (ITA) have set the pace for much of the past five years, winning the World Championship along with nearly every other major event in 2018. They were pushed hard all the way by compatriots Vittoro Bissaro and Maelle Frascari who won the 2019 Worlds but Tita and Banti came on strong in the final run-in to Italian selection and narrowly earned their ticket to Tokyo.
Similarly, Great Britain’s squad saw a really tight selection battle where John Gimson and Anna Burnet eventually prevailed, helped from the coach boat by Gimson’s great friend and former training partner in the Star Keelboat, three-time Olympic medallist Iain Percy.
The three medal-winning nations from Rio 2016 are still very much in contention in Tokyo - the aforementioned Argentineans along with Australia’s Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin, who only just missed out on gold five years ago, and the bronze medallists from Austria. With his former crew Tanja Frank now racing in the 49erFX, helmsman Thomas Zajac has been campaigning for Tokyo with Olympic first-timer Barbara Matz.
If winning medals is a game of experience, then no one will be able to match Santiago Lange, participating at his seventh Olympic Games. Lange's Olympic history goes back to 1988. He was in Seoul, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro. Bronze in 2004 and 2008, gold in 2016, Santi just can’t stay away. This might be the most special Games yet for Lange who, with Saroli 25 years his junior, will be the flag bearer for the Argentine team at the Opening Ceremony.
"I have great respect for all Argentine athletes,” commented Lange, “and to be for a little while the ambassador of all of them in a Games is very special. And it makes me very proud that we can do it together with Cecilia."
While not in the top tier of favourites for a medal, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Germany’s Paul Kohlhoff and Alica Stuhlemmer right in the mix. Their campaign has had its hair-raising moments. When training in Enoshima on a previous occasion, the Germans had a close encounter with nature that they’d rather not repeat.
“We were sailing fast downwind, around 25 to 30 knots, when in front of us suddenly we saw a huge fish,” says Stuhlemmer. “Its fin appeared out of the water and Paul immediately steered an evasive manoeuvre. We crashed and stopped - from 100 to zero."
There is so much depth in the Nacra 17 fleet, with a number of teams who are quite capable of rising to the occasion.
Bronze medallist five years ago, Zajac along with Matz could come good on the day, despite a patchy record in recent seasons.
Spain’s Tara Pacheco won the 470 World Championships 10 years ago so clearly has the head for the big occasion. Sailing with Florian Trittel, Pacheco has achieved some strong results over the past four years - second at the 2017 Worlds, fifth in 2019 and sixth in 2020. Trittel has been competing on the SailGP circuit in between Olympic commitments, and that high-pressure competition in foiling 50ft catamarans can only help with all the challenges of racing a foiling 17ft catamaran at the Olympic Games.
Another team with a female helm and male crew is the Danish pair of Lin Cenholt and CP Lubeck whose scores at the last three World Championships read 4,2,8, although their track record in Enoshima is not so strong. Three years ago Lubeck required surgery after severely injuring his lower leg when falling overboard during training. His trapeze hook broke, and as he hit the water the rudder foil caught him badly on its way past. It’s one of the hazards of high-speed foiling and the most recent injury in the fleet was to Erica Dawson, representing New Zealand along with helmsman Micah Wilkinson.
The Nacra 17 fleet will see 20 boats take to the start line. They are scheduled to sail a 12 race series with the first starting gun sounding at 1430 on Wednesday 28 July on the Kamakura racing area. Their Medal Race on Tuesday 3 August will bring their competition to a close.
A full list of competitors is available HERE.