Annalise Murphy exploits Rio’s winds of change – but real challenge lies ahead
Sailor leads laser radial race at half-way stage but calmer conditions are being predicted
Annalise Murphy of Ireland sails in the women’s Laser Radials at the Marina da Gloria on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Ireland’s Annalise Murphy competes in the third race of the laser radial competition in Guanabara Bay in Rio. Photograph: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
After four years of light air preparations, there was some irony that it was a near gale force wind and not Rio’s predicted zephyrs that swept Annalise Murphy into the gold medal position on Wednesday. For the second consecutive Olympiad, a sail with an Irish tricolour and the name ‘Murphy’ emblazoned on it leads the radial fleet at the half-way stage.
Only this time, it’s even more impressive because Murphy’s Rio composure has seen her banish light air demons and give an improved performance across the wind range. It appears that recent work on her physique has helped her progress from heavy-weather expert to all-round contender.
Crucially, this medium air pace is something she may yet rely on through Friday and Saturday as weather forecasts are predicting a big drop in wind speeds for the final four races before Monday’s medal race.
If this happens, it will mean new tests of her ability in light winds not seen so far this week; but one thing that can be relied upon is that the waters and random conditions of Guanabara Bay are proving to be a leveller for many in the fleet.
For the past year, much of the build-up to this regatta has focused solely on the unsuitability of the venue but in the opening three days conditions were impressive and that played right into the hands of Ireland’s Laser ace.
On Wednesday, winds hit 20-knots and the National Yacht Club sailor was in her element, finishing race six and producing a consistent score sheet of 1, 13, 4, 7, 5, 2 to lead from Denmark’s Anne-Marie Rindom by a single point on 19-points.
Since Monday’s start, there has been much more wind than Rio’s average of six-knots but it has come with big shifts, a nasty chop and no degree of predictability. Murphy conquered it and the world’s toughest women’s fleet to boot. In so doing, she’s proved worthy of a medal for such all-round sailing skills.
She may well be on course to end Ireland’s 36-year sailing medal drought, but the Irish camp is focused on managing expectations. “I was in this position in London and I ended up fourth, so I’m not thinking too far ahead,” Murphy told the Irish Times after race six.
In fact, in 2012, she was in a better position with four firsts, an eighth and a discarded 19th to have only 12 points after six races. She had scored 34 points after 10. With four races to go in Rio, Murphy will need to average less than 20th to make the medal race. With averages of 10th, she will easily make the medal race but will probably not medal.
Murphy will have calculated too that it is not impossible to still fall out of the top 10. Four 20ths or worse on Friday and Saturday, for example, could see her finish in 11th place and outside of medal race participation.
Few expected her to be in such a prime position at this stage. Team management said the four-boat team were an “outside shot” because of the fickle nature of Rio’s breezes but also because Murphy herself had been struggling with form in 2016.
Murphy dismissed the challenge of Aoife Hopkins in the three-event Irish trial for the single Olympic spot in May but her performances contradicted her own belief that she was one of eight in the fleet with the potential to win a medal in Rio.
Since January, her results at major events have been 48th at Miami World Cup, 30th at the Laser Europeans, 39th at the Laser Worlds and 34th at Weymouth World Cup.
It wasn’t popular to say it, but the historical profile of the venue’s light winds even suggested that Murphy was going to struggle to make the medal race. Instead she leads the 37-boat fleet. But this is not the first time the 2013 European champion has surprised.
As recently as this month – in a little reported victory – she scored what might yet become a prophetic win at Rio de Janeiro’s International Sailing Week. It was her last race on Olympic waters before the Games and one that rivals dismissed as a ‘B fleet result’ but this week she silenced them in the most effective manner.