Best of OZY: Olympic Sailors Kahena Kunze and Martine Grael
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Competing in the Olympics can be even harder than you think.
By Shannon Sims
OZY first profiled world-class sailors Kahena Kunze and Martine Grael in April of this year. The duo thrilled hometown crowds last month, when they came from behind to win the gold medal in the Olympic test event for their racing division, offering a preview of things to come next summer at the Rio Olympic Games.
Kahena Kunze and Martine Grael know Guanabara Bay — one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and where the sailing events at next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will be held — like the backs of their rope-blistered hands. And the 24-year-olds are hell-bent on a gold medal. That’s why they’re preparing to gulp down gallons of sewage-contaminated, trash-riddled water. “We swallow lots of water,” says Grael. “It’s very concerning.”
It’s a sorry situation for the stars — the 2014 International Sailing Federation’s World Sailors of the Year were also named Brazil’s best athletes last year— who will be hanging back off their boat, suspended at the waist by cables, just inches from the murky water. Despite promises upon promises of cleanups and dredges, visitors can smell the polluted bay from miles away. And since Kunze and Grael are the ones who’ll be in the water, they’ve been speaking out about the bay’s conditions ahead of time, throwing their hats into a political bog in a way athletes rarely do.
They’re the latest voices in an increasing swell of athletes speaking out about the degradation of the environment they’re dependent on. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, athletes’ air pollution concerns grew so pronounced that the city shut down factories and banned substantial car traffic. But the problem isn’t limited to poorly managed developing countries. On the cusp of the 2012 London Games, studies showed nitrogen dioxide air pollution levels were equivalent to those in pre-adjusted Beijing. And winter athletes are speaking out about climate change, concerned that their sports are at risk of eventual extinction.
For now, though, the show must go on. Come June 2016, the world’s best sailors will face the ultimate test of their meteoric rise in the women’s skiff division of sailing. In many ways, the success of Kunze and Grael so far is not entirely surprising, says Brazilian sailing expert and former world champion Mário Buckup. “They are both the children of very important sailing families in Brazil,” he explains. Both grew up in Rio de Janeiro with a life of privilege, playing around yacht clubs with their sailor fathers. (Grael’s father, Torben Grael, holds more Olympic medals than any other Brazilian and is a former World Sailor of the Year himself.) They ran in the same circles for a long time after entering into the competitive world of racing but began their careers as rivals in different clubs.
But they were going at it alone. Heading into their first World Championship in 2013, they felt intimidated: The other sailors all had coaches, but they didn’t. No matter. The young sailors surprised the competition with a second-place finish. Last year, they again exhibited a come-from-behind tenacity, lagging until the next-to-last leg of the race. That gold-medal performance helped seal their arrival on the world stage and earn them World Sailor of the Year awards.
We want our kids to be able to sail here as well.
The two look like they could be on a high school volleyball team — until they pop on their shades and become badass athletes. Kunze reflects the German influence in Brazil and, with blond hair and fair skin, looks like a sailor from a different country’s team. She tends to be in the front, both physically on the boat and in conversation. But the dark-haired, quieter Grael finishes her sentences. Though she began sailing in utero — literally — she notes that the fruits of her training prove she’s sailing on more than her family’s famous name.
These days, Kunze and Grael are on a consistent run of gold and silver medals at key events. They’re in Rio for just a few days between competitions, before jetting back to Spain to keep training. They’re so immersed in their training that Kunze was recently stopped at the Miami airport — just before they’d go on to win three World Cup regattas — for having a drill in her carry-on (it’s used for boat adjustments). They credit their Spanish coach, Javier Torres del Moral, for their success so far, and remain positive about the future of sailing in Brazil. But they’re facing stiffer challenges from rivals. Indeed, in January, the duo slipped in the World Cup rankings, and the Olympics “will be very competitive for them,” warns Buckup.
Still, they’re hoping the games can help highlight the importance of keeping the bay clean. Nearly in unison they say, “We want our kids to be able to sail here as well,” just as their own families once wished for them.
Asked why they love their sport, they highlight the travesty of Guanabara Bay’s current state. “I love the randomness of the sea; being so close to it fascinates me,” says Grael.
“Yes,” adds Kunze. “I love being in contact with nature, being in contact with the water.”