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  • Jessica Matthews

New Horizons

Fresh off his latest SailGP win in Sydney, veteran sailor Tom Slingsby says he’s finally learning to enjoy the journey. By Jessica Matthews.

Professional sailor Tom Slingsby aboard a foiling catamaran for the SailGP race in Abu Dhabi. Photography by Felix Diemer for SailGP.

When the Australian sailor Tom Slingsby was 16 years old, he wrote down a list of goals. At the top was his dream: to win an Olympic gold medal. Underneath was a series of smaller, short-term objectives, from winning his sailing club championship to taking out state and national titles. What’s remarkable about the list isn’t just the scale of the ambition, but the fact that Slingsby went on to achieve everything on it — and more. Along with a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, he has won: three World Sailor of the Year awards (including last year’s title); the 2013 America’s Cup, as part of USA’s Oracle Team; the 2016 Sydney to Hobart; and three back-to-back championships as the CEO and driver of Australia’s SailGP side — not to mention his most recent win at a SailGP event in Sydney in February, which saw Slingsby celebrating on the podium with a champagne “shoey”. “I had my stepping stones, I had my path,” Slingsby says. “It was a pretty long list of goals, but I was able to tick them all off.”


From this rarefied vantage point, the 39-year-old is finally able to start appreciating his achievements. “It is pretty amazing,” Slingsby says on the line from Barcelona, where he is currently training for this year’s America’s Cup. “I’m beginning to look back a bit more now and enjoy it.” The truth is that, up until recently, he simply hasn’t had the time — or inclination — to do so. “I often get told that I never enjoy the moments in sailing,” he says. “I’ve always been that guy who ticks something off and then straight away I’m looking at the next thing.” 


Tom Slingsby. Photography by Thomas Laisné for Rolex.

Growing up in Koolewong on New South Wales’s Central Coast, Slingsby initially focused on tennis. “That was always my goal, to be a professional tennis player,” he says. As a top-level junior, he was on his way to realising that dream, but then he lost interest in the game and quit around the age of 15. Not long after, the 2000 Olympics took place in Sydney. Slingsby became a fixture on the shore of Bradleys Head, where he became “obsessed” with the sailing. “I just got really driven by it,” he says. “And I was like, ‘That’s where I want to be. And not only do I want to be there — I want to win.’”


Until then, Slingsby had only participated in the sport once a week, and he was yet to show any real flair for it. “I wasn’t a good junior sailor,” he recalls. “I was sort of middle of the pack or back of the pack at times.” But as he threw himself into training — focusing on the Laser class of single-handed dinghies — a unique skill set started to emerge. Slingsby is too modest to claim the “Wind Whisperer” title many have bestowed on him, but he acknowledges: “I feel like I do see the wind in a different way.”


The discovery was made after Slingsby’s father — an experienced sailor and engineer — drew his son a whiteboard diagram that explained “how wind moves over land and how a gust of wind hits the water and how you’ve got to line your boat up to a certain part of the gust to get the best part of it”, Slingsby says. About a year later, the pair went sailing and Slingsby showed how he was putting this knowledge into action. “I was saying, ‘Oh yeah, the gust we’re about to get lifted 10 degrees here and then it’s going to go light and then it’s going to go left and we should tack there …’ — I was just explaining the way I saw it.” Later that day, his father demanded to know how he did it. “I said, ‘Well, it’s exactly what you told me,’” Slingsby recalls, “and he said, ‘Yes, that’s the theory of sailing — but no-one can actually see the wind that way.’ ” Other sailors around him agreed, telling the then-teenager he could “see the wind in a way that no-one else sees it”.


Slingsby has raced the America’s Cup several times as part of team America, winning in 2013. Photography by Ricardo Pinto for SailGP.

Slingsby says this ability is “very hard to explain”, but it’s mainly based on what he can observe directly with his senses. For example, how wind “changes the colour and texture” of water. “You can tell by looking closely how much extra wind it is, what way it’s going to shift, and if it’s going to shift for a short or long time,” he says. His ears help, too. “You can feel different pressures from side to side depending on which way you face your head, and you can sort of intuitively understand what the wind is doing.”


Being recognised for his talent gave Slingsby confidence. “I’d never been given a compliment like that — people saying I have a special ability,” he says. “My dad said, ‘You have to use this. Don’t take it for granted.’”


As he ascended through the ranks of the sport, Slingsby was cultivating another key asset: an indomitable sense of discipline. “I used to wake up and go cycling each morning — even in pouring rain,” he says. “I’d still go when most people wouldn’t because I had that mindset of, ‘I’m going to train when no-one else is training. I’m going to do more than anyone around me. No-one else is going to work as hard as I’m going to work.’ ” 


The team narrowly beat out Denmark to win in Sydney. Photography by Simon Bruty For SailGP.

By the time the 2008 Olympics came around, Slingsby hadn’t finished outside the top three in an event for three years, and he’d had a roughly nine-month winning streak leading into the games — making him the undisputed favourite. “I was young, I was cocky, I just had this mindset that anything I want, I can achieve,” Slingsby says. But things didn’t go as planned. After shedding more than 15 kilograms — to aid the speed of his boat in Beijing’s relatively windless conditions — Slingsby was struck down with glandular fever, leaving him physically and mentally depleted. “I finished 22nd at those Olympics,” he says. “I got completely smoked. I choked on the world stage, really.” 


It took nine months before he got back into a boat. “I was quite depressed,” he recalls. But when he did, his approach had shifted, and he went into the 2012 Olympics — once again as the favourite — with a new perspective. “I just had this mantra that ‘I’m not the same person I was four years ago,’ ” he says. “And instead of competing against other people, I had in my mind that I was only competing against myself, and that if I compete at the level I know I can, no-one can stop me.” Which is exactly what happened. “I was able to win pretty comfortably and get a gold medal — and move on with my life,” he says. He cites the comeback as “one of the most important parts of my career”.


In the years since, Slingsby has continued to assert his dominance — and versatility — in the sport, winning solo and team events on vessels ranging from supermaxis to small foiling Moths. He has also ventured into management, taking on a strategist role for Oracle Team USA in 2013 and his current CEO position with SailGP’s Australian side. “I feel like we all need to be problem solvers to get to the top of the world,” he says of the link between his sporting and business endeavours.


In Barcelona — where Slingsby lives with his wife, Helena Slingsby (nee Sauzier, of “The Bachelor” fame), and their infant son, Leo — the sailing veteran is working with the US team American Magic as it prepares for the America’s Cup, to be held in the city between August and October. (Slingsby holds a US passport, thanks to his mother’s American heritage, which allowed him to join the crew.) Currently, his roughly 12-hour workdays are spent going from gym workouts to strategy meetings to sailing sessions to end-of-day debriefs. “It’s not your typical nine-to-five,” he says, noting that others on his team work even longer schedules. “For these teams, it’s an obsession.”


Slingsby (centre left) with his victorious SailGP teammates in February. Photography by Brett Phibbs for SailGP.

Slingsby also regularly travels for international SailGP events, held everywhere from Chicago to Bermuda. “It’s been an amazing journey,” he says, discussing the Australian side he’s assembled. “We’ve really become more of a family than a team. These people are some of my best friends in the world and I’ve been fortunate to keep the team very similar over the years. And yeah, we’ve been able to win the season three times in a row and we’re leading in season four.” He adds reflectively, “I’ve changed my mindset to really enjoy the moment because I know our run will come to an end at some point — we will get beaten and the team will change eventually.”


For Slingsby, this decision marks a radical transformation — one that would have been unthinkable years ago. “I’ve always said I’ll enjoy it [success] when I’m retired, but I’ve realised now that I should be enjoying it a lot earlier than that,” he says. “I’m starting to change a bit now that I’m getting older.” While he remains ambitious, Slingsby says this has been tempered by a shift in his personal life. “I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago — I’m a lot more balanced now. I have a son to look after, so it’s all changed a bit,” he continues. “I’m still driven to achieve good things. I want to win the America’s Cup, I want to continue to win at SailGP. But I want to be successful and enjoy the journey with my family.” 

 


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 14 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “New Horizons”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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