Now officially Australia’s most successful Olympic sailor ever, Mat Belcher has been a dominant force in the 470 class over the last three Olympics. The 39-year-old won gold at his first Olympics in London in 2012 with Malcolm Page. He then took home a silver at Rio in 2016 with new sailing partner Will Ryan. The pair then followed up with a gold medal at Tokyo this year. We chatted to Mat via video call from his home on the Gold Coast to chat about his love of sailing and his Olympics journey.
Talk us through your earliest memories of sailing and being on the water. Was there always a connection to the water? From an early age I loved being on the water. Mum and dad were really keen powerboaters and every weekend we used to go out as a family. We would cruise the canals and the Gold Coast Broadwater. When I was about 6 or 7, my older brother Dan [Belcher, President of Australian Sailing] wanted to get into sailing. Dan was 18 months older than me, I was sort of the younger brother just going along with it. Mum and dad bought a really old boat for a couple of hundred dollars, towed it behind their boat, tied a rope, put a life jacket on me, chucked me in and said “off you go”. I think I cried for the first 20 minutes. Eventually, those weekends grew to be more regular, we got into the local sailing club at Southport and here we are.
So when did that passion and drive to pursue a career in sailing really kick in? I never really had a desire to be a professional sailor. It was more the desire for the Olympics. That was my motivation. To go to the Games, win Olympic medals and represent my country. That motivation began at the Sydney Games. My brother and I had won the 420 Worlds that year, I was in Year 12, Dan was in uni. John Coates called up my parents and they had one spot to carry the Olympic flag at the closing ceremony. I’d missed out on many things that year so my parents said I could do it. Walking into that closing ceremony, seeing the athletes, the looks on their faces really highlighted to it me. It was a really cool thing to see. It was only a couple of weeks later that Victor Kovalenko, the 470 coach, invited me to come down and sail with Mark Turnbull after he just won the gold. That was a pretty cool introduction to the 470. It started from there and was a long journey to actually get to London in 2012 which was my first Olympics.
How special was it to win your second Olympic gold, which was also Will’s first? It was a bit surreal. Will’s smile when we crossed the line, that was really special. We’re really close, really good mates. His understanding with my family, in terms of travel and family and everything that’s gone on with COVID has been amazing. He had to travel much more than me, and spend more time away than me, as we live in different places. This allowed me to have those extra few weeks at home. He’ll be a friend for life that’s for sure
Australia cheered on as Perth native Matthew ‘Matt’ Wearn took home the gold in the Laser class at his first Olympics in Tokyo. The 26-year-old Perth native was enjoying a well-earned break post-Games in Belgium with his fiancée and fellow sailor Emma Plasschaert, when we chatted to him via video call. We asked Matt about his Olympics experience and his future plans within sailing.
Any key mentors or sailing role models who had a formative impact on you? Belinda Stowell is someone who has been there and part of the sailing culture from the beginning. She took me under her wing and helped guide me along the track. Tom Slingsby is obviously another person I looked up to. He dominated the Laser class for many years and so as a young kid I was sort of a fan boy. His coach Michael Blackburn is another big name I always wanted to meet and he’s now been my coach for 10 years. It’s a pretty cool sport in that you can have those experiences with people you admire.
Talk us through the actual moment of being on the medal podium in Tokyo and receiving that gold medal. What goes through your mind? From the moment you get off the water after the medal race, it’s just insanity. You get whisked away for live media interviews and other formalities. It wasn’t until I was standing behind the podium that I got to just stop for five minutes with myself. That was a really cool moment of just letting everything in. The weight of the last five years, sort of lifts off your shoulders in some sense. Then when they call your name and you stand on the podium, you watch the flag raise and listen to the national anthem, you do get emotional. You start to shed a little bit of a tear in the corner of your eye. All the hard work and sacrifice is for that moment and it just sort of flows through you.
What’s next for you? You’ve no doubt earned a bit of time off but do you already have the next big goal in mind? The initial plan is to have some time off then to get back into more of the professional side of sailing. I’ve been doing some more sailing on bigger boats and I’ve enjoyed that team environment as well – it brings out another aspect of sailing. The main goal is definitely set firmly on Paris, with only three years between the Olympics it’s going to come around quickly. So I’ll get back into training for that early next year. I haven’t ever won a World Championship either so that is definitely on the list as well
Follow the Australian Sailing Team at www.australiansailingteam.com.au
Visit www.discoversailing.org.au to get involved in sailing.
Read our full interviews with Mat Belcher and Matt Wearn with in the October-November issue of Nautilus Marine Magazine.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAILING ENERGY AND WORLD SAILING.