These sailors have been trying to beat each other on the water since they were teenagers. Decades later, the rivals have joined forces and put their world-class talent and long-standing relationship in the same boat. The result is another London 2012 medal hope for Canada.
“We’re always medal contenders,” said Bjorn, 42, from his home in Montreal in between training sessions. “But we’ve never been the favourites.”
Clarke, who will be making his fifth appearance (1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 in Finn class), at an Olympic Games quit his job in September and left the pro circuit behind to pursue his podium dream.
“I put myself in the position now where I can get in the shape that I need to be in to sail the boat at the highest level,” said Clarke from his home on Salt Spring Islands between European training sessions.
“We feel stronger, faster and a lot more prepared than we have before.”
The crew’s Olympic training program has Bjorn and Clarke in Europe, working mostly with the defending Olympic gold-medallist British team. Bjorn says training closely with this elite crew bolsters individual strengths and improves weaknesses — giving both teams their best chance to get in position for a medal.
If it comes down to Canada vs. Britain for the gold, however, Bjorn says both teams will be ready for a head-to-head battle on the water: the ultimate chance to take advantage of precise Canadian chemistry.
“We have been friends for 25 years,” said Clarke of his longtime competitor and now-crewmate Bjorn.
“To have a good friend who is not afraid to speak up and voice his opinion is great. I really look to Tyler to keep things going on track. That’s the best thing about him, he’s very steady.”
The team chemistry aboard their trend-setting, German-designed P-Star boat is very much instinctual for Bjorn and Clarke who are coached by 2002 Star Class World Champ and British Olympian Steve Mitchell.
“When we are successful on the race course, it’s when there is a lot of conversation in the boat,” said Bjorn. “I feed him all the information he needs to know to make the best decision and take away any distractions so he can focus.”
This “synergy” is earned with years of consistent training and unwavering commitment to the relationship with each other and the boat.
Bjorn and Clarke’s Olympic passion, however, is collectively in their blood.
“I’ve been around the Olympics for so long, it’s a relief to finally get there,” said Bjorn whose father Peter and brother Kai (a former CFL football player) are both Olympians in the sport of Sailing, competing in Munich in 1972 and Sydney in 2000 respectively – and both as members of a Star crew.
“They joke around, saying ‘Tyler, you’re our last (family) hope at a medal, so the pressure’s on,” said Bjorn. “We laugh about that.”
Clarke’s father John, a 1967 Pan American Games bronze medallist, was also an Olympian in the Finn class in Munich Games in 1972, making him a Canadian Olympic teammate of Peter Bjorn. At three-and-a-half years old, Richard tagged along with his family during his father’s pre-Olympic European tour that year, hauling his Finn boat on a trailer behind a camper van. He says that experience must have had an effect on his steadfast dream of becoming an Olympic medallist.
Sailing, though, spans generations for the Clarke family.
“I owe a lot to my family for giving me the DNA to be a top sailor,” said Clarke whose grandfathers both were sailors and died at sea. His great grandfather, too, was on the tall ships running grain from England to Australia and back.
“My parents met sailing. I’ve been incredibly blessed with that genetic, to have that sailing sense, to be able to judge the currents and know the best way to get from point A to point B and see it in my mind.”
Now, the Canadian Olympic family tie is knotted again in 2012 for both Bjorn and Clarke. However, considering everything that gave them this opportunity, it’s clear these Games are about one thing for this Canadian crew.
“I have no desire to go to the Olympics for another feather in the cap,” said Clarke. “I’ve been a participant enough times. I’m going to London to be a medallist.”
The men begin Olympic sailing competition at Weymouth and Portland, Dorset July 29. The Star medal race is August 5.
GET ON BOARD
In an effort to bring Canadians along for the Olympic journey, Clarke and Bjorn have pulled together an intuitive effort to boost both funding and inspiration in Canada. Their Get on Board program gives people a chance to put their name on the side of the boat as a sign of support from donations to help ease the cost of equipment, travel and training on Canada’s Star crew on their journey to London.
“We are well funded but there is always so much more that needs to be done,” said Clarke.
“For less than a tank of gas in your car, you can make a huge difference in our program. It takes a village to raise an Olympian, and we need the Canadian village to help us out.”
Photo Credit: Jacqueline Campbell