Sunday, 10 April 2011

Interview with Jo Aleh, NZ's Laser Radial Olympian and now Multiple 470 Medallist

Jo Aleh is, without doubt, New Zealand's current foremost female Olympic sailor. In 2002 she won the P-Class Tanner Cup, the first female to do so since its inception in 1945! Jo Aleh went on to take the silver medal at the ISAF Youth Worlds in Poland in the Laser Radial. She then competed in the Laser Radial at the Olympic Games 2008 in Qingdao, nudging the medal slots but finishing 7th after the medal race.

Since this time Jo has teamed up with Polly Powrie to form Team Jolly, one of the top Women's 470 teams in the World, campaigning for the Weymouth Olympics in 2012. Together they gained Silver at the 2010 Worlds to long-standing class leaders, Dutch sailors Lisa Westerhof and Lobke Berkhout. Further, with Jo's win of the Laser Radial Nationals, and Polly helming with Jo amongst the crew for the Women's National Match Racing, as well as sailing in the 470 Women's Nationals, they have won the NZ National Championships in no less than three Olympic classes over the past NZ summer sailing season!

Jo Aleh. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

In the second part of this interview (read Part One here), Jo talks about her sailing career, present Women's 470 Olympic campaign and ambitions in the sport - Olympic and beyond. She also discusses the role of women in sailing, issues for women sailing in the different fields of the Olympics (mixed/single sex events), the America's Cup (AC) and the Volvo Ocean Race, together with the lack of any current clear pathway for women to transition to becoming professional sailors.

Anne Hinton caught up with Jo Aleh just before the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE Olympic classes regatta in Palma, Mallorca, Spain, where she was sailing with Bianca Barbarich-Bacher as a last minute replacement for an injured Polly Powrie. A late replacement crew did not prevent Jo Aleh from taking out the Gold medal in the Women's 470 class at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE Olympic classes regatta stage of the ISAF Sailing World Cup!

Part Two

AH: How did you come to combine with Polly Powrie for this 470 Olympic campaign, please?

JA: I have known Polly since my days at Kohimarama, where we had some great battles in the P-Class, she then moved to the double handed classes, and we went to two youth worlds together, with her helming a 420 and me in the Laser Radial. When I heard the 2007 420 Worlds were going to be held at Takapuna, I thought I may as well try and compete, so I got in touch with Polly (as she had been sailing a Radial – and who better to team up with than another Laser sailor?), and we agreed to do a rather condensed 2-3 month build up for the Worlds. It went very well, and it was the most fun I had sailing in a long time, so when I thought about sailing a 470, Polly was the only person I was going to do it with.

Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie racing their 470. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: With Polly helming, Team Jolly has also just won the Women’s National Match Racing title 2011... and you won the Laser Radial title in NZ as well this year. It appears that you are at the top of 3 Olympic classes. How do you choose which one to further your campaign in, being such an all-rounder?

JA: We decided last year that we wanted to try and make sure we didn’t get too stale, hence the switching the classes and roles around. The Laser Nationals happened to be in Auckland so I thought I may as well have one last go at it, which turned out surprisingly well, as it was actually the first time I have ever won the overall title. The Match Racing Nationals fitted in perfectly as we have been wanting to work on our boat on boat skills after the medal race at our 2010 Worlds, and getting Polly some helm time was another good thing, after years of crewing. Doing so well in all these events has just been a bonus!

Polly Powrie helms to victory in the Telecom LIVESport New Zealand Women's National Match Racing Championships 2011, with Jo Aleh (top back) crewing for her usual crew! Image copyright RNZYS.

AH: What do you want to achieve in sailing?

JA: An Olympic medal or two... As well as winning a few World Championships in the process.

AH: Why these particular goals, please?

JA: The Olympic Games has always been the pinnacle I have looked up to, from when I was twelve years old, I have been wanting to go to the Olympics and win a medal for NZ. I have been half way there and got to an Olympics, but still want that medal.

AH: At present you are sailing in women’s classes. Do you think that a separation between women’s and men’s sailing is a good idea, or would you prefer to see either (a) mixed, or (b) open classes, please?

JA: I think that some mixed classes can be a good idea, for classes where there are not high enough numbers to split it out into men’s and women’s. But I think keeping some separation is also good, so that women can be either the skipper or the crew, as or else, due to physical reasons, it could end up that women can only be skippers to be competitive, and have men as crews, or the other way around, depending on the class, which would not be fair to either sex.

Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (NZL 75) in action at the 470 New Zealand Nationals 2011. Image copyright Christine Hansen.

AH: There is a movement towards some mixed sailing at the Olympics, but at present sailors in the America’s Cup are almost exclusively male, and that is 100% the case for the Volvo Ocean Race, despite many round-the-world races by single-/short-handed women sailors. Do you think that the situation for the America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race needs to change to incorporate women in the sailing teams?

JA: I think that it would be a great step to have women involved in sailing such as the AC and the Volvo, but I do not think that the situation will change in the near future. Women can do some jobs as well as any guy, but it is also true that in terms of strength and weight, we cannot compete. I would very much like to see more opportunities for women in the roles where those factors are not an issue, but then there is the problem that sailing is still very much stuck in the old days, and women are not at all considered equal.

AH: Do you wish to compete in both the America’s Cup and/or Volvo Ocean Race as a sailor?

JA: When I was younger I wanted to compete in the AC or the Volvo, but the more sailing I do, the less likely it seems to me. My priority is the Olympics, and when I have finished what I want to do in that area, I might look further afield, hoping that the situation for women has improved.

Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie in the 470. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: How do you see your sailing career progressing aside from e.g. Olympic campaigns?

JA: I would like to branch into more keelboat sailing, and maybe get into multis as that seems to be the way everything is going. But to be honest, to campaign properly with the aim of a medal, you have very little time to do anything else but your chosen discipline, so anything else I want to do will have to wait until after!

AH: Do you feel that the options for women as professional sailors are limited compared with those of their male counterparts?

JA: Yes, very. There doesn't seem to be any real path to follow for women, with men seeming to have a very easy transition into being a professional sailor.

AH: How do you feel are the best ways in which women could be integrated further into sailing, please?

JA: I think that having compulsory mixed crews for some events, even with just one or two women in a crew – the same way that the Teams Racing Worlds are raced – with a compulsory female team member, would be a good way to go.

Jo Aleh in the 470. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

AH: Please could you give a brief list of your major sailing successes to finsh with?

JA: 2004 – ISAF Youth Worlds Silver Medal (Laser Radial)
2006 – 3rd Holland Regatta, 2nd Qingdao Test Event (Laser Radial)
2007 – 3rd Princess Sofia, 2nd Hyeres Regatta, 1st Kiel Week, 2nd Pre Olympic Regatta, Ranked no.1 in the ISAF World Rankings (Laser Radial)
2007 - 420 Women’s World Champion (with Polly Powrie)
2008 – 7th Beijing Olympic Games (Laser Radial)
2009 – 3rd 470 European Championships, 6th 470 World Championships, 2nd Sail for Gold
2010 – 2nd 470 World Championships, 3rd Busan Cup (as crew with Skipper Stephanie Hazard – Match Racing)
2011 (to date 10th April!) - 1st 470 Princess Sofia MAPFRE (part of the ISAF Sailing World Cup, with Bianca Barbarich-Bacher), Winner of NZ Women's 470 Nationals (with Polly Powrie), Winner of NZ Women's National Match Racing (with Polly Powrie helming), Winner of NZ Laser Radial Nationals

AH: Thank you for your time and the interview. You are a great inspiration to Kiwi sailors! All the best for your future career.

Addendum after Winning Gold in the 470 Women's Class at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE 2011

Jo Aleh and last-minute replacement crew, Bianca Barbarich-Bacher, on their way to winning Gold at the Trofeo Princesa Sofia MAPFRE ISAF Sailing World Cup event in Palma, April 2011. Image copyright Thom Thouw.

AH: Another Gold - WELL DONE! Any comments?

JA: Well, I am just happy to have made it over here, as straight after Polly's accident I didn't think I would come over, but I am very pleased that we made the effort, and lucky enough that Bianca was able to drop everything at the last minute and get on a plane to Spain!
It's been a great learning experience for both of us, and I am now looking forward to getting back home, and getting Polly up and running, ready to try and take on the rest of the world again at Sail for Gold!

Jo Aleh with other Olympians in the Olympic Stadium in Beijing 2008. Image copyright Yachting New Zealand.

Comment from SailRaceWin: We are sure that Jo will achieve her ambition of winning an Olympic medal for New Zealand in Weymouth 2012, with Polly Powrie. It's great to see such an inspirational person in the sport of sailing in New Zealand in the Olympic arena, an area in which traditionally NZ has not been so strong as in match racing (America's Cup) or ocean racing. Jo is also blazing an awesome trail for women in sailing in New Zealand (who out-did the Kiwi men in their medal haul in Palma, by two Golds to one Silver)!

Our thanks to Jodie Bakewell-White for looking out a number of photos of Jo Aleh for this piece.

Jo Aleh
Team Jolly