She set sail for the Olympics in Tokyo

Google the word “sailing,” and one question that you’ll find will be “Is sailing a sport or a hobby?” For Tiril Bue, there’s no doubt and 2018 saw Norwegian Olympic medal hopeful face plenty of headwinds.

The year began badly for Tiril Bue in Barcelona in January when her partner, Mathias Mollatt, dislocated his shoulder. It happened again in May and he was forced to have an operation. For Bue to continue, Jeppe Nilsen had to be drafted as a substitute. But that wouldn’t be the end of the drama for the crew. 

“It’s pretty far removed from the image many people perhaps have of sailing,” Bue says, as she takes up the story. “Jeppe hikes out on a wire about a meter above the water. You have to be ruthless and fearless. There are such strong forces in the boat that if you don’t push the boat to go fast, these forces will control you instead and do the opposite. You don’t have time to think what’s actually happening as things move so quickly. As he fell, I realized straightaway everything would go pear-shaped. That’s a horrible feeling.”

Nilsen was hit by the T-foil (a wing under the water) at about 18 knots. The water running down his body was red. His lower leg had been sliced to the bone. He spent three days in a hospital in Japan, with several stitches on the inside and over 20 on the outside.
“It was a real nightmare of a year. Having said that, I learned many lessons, not least I gained a clearer picture of what working as a team means. We’ve always said we want to win medals in Tokyo, and we still believe in this. When you think that Mathias was unable to sail for the whole of 2018, we’ve made incredible progress since February this year,” Bue says.

The Nacra 17, which was in the Olympics program for the first time in 2016, is a catamaran for a crew of two. Speeds of 18 knots are pretty common, and it can reach a maximum of some 28 knots, making it arguably the fastest and most extreme class in sailing. Encouraged by Mollatt, Bue switched from the singlehand Laser Radial dinghy in Spring 2017. It was an opportunity she found impossible to turn down.

“It’s such an amazing, fast boat. It’s also demanding and exciting when there are two of you. It takes so many hours and so much communication, which is fun to develop. In our case, Mathias is the “engine” in the boat – he manages the sails, while I helm. Even the slightest movement creates a massive effect. It’s all about coordination and precision, as well as being explosive. Sailing itself is so complex with tiny subgoals and processes that merge together. The way these things help you dream big is what motivates me.” 

As a young girl, Bue was keen on dancing, tennis, piano, soccer and handball. She also wanted to become a doctor, so doing well at school was important for her. Gradually however, sailing took more and more of her time. 
“I started when I was eight. My uncle sailed, as did all my siblings. My brother will probably hate me a bit for saying this, but he wasn’t very good with a ball, so our parents had to think of something else. I’ve always liked being on the water and it was a great environment, which made it an unbeatable combination for me.”

One of her role models was Siren Sundby, who won Olympic gold in the 2004 Athens Games and the world championships in 2003 and 2004. Sundby is the last Norwegian sailor to win an Olympic medal.
“I didn’t know when I was young that I’d want to compete in the Olympics myself, but having such a big profile as a role model within sailing motivated me,” Bue says. “When I won gold at the 2011 Youth Sailing World Championships, I felt that this was something I was pretty good at. That feeling of being the best, when everything clicks into place and you appreciate that this is the end result of all the training – it only makes me want more.”

Her race partner Mathias Mollatt who spends more time with her than anyone else, describes Bue as level--headed, but lively at the same time, and someone who’s active, happy and always doing something. He also mentions her fierce sense of determination – don’t try and beat her to the top of the stairs, he warns.

“Ah, yes, the stair runs,” Bue interrupts. “It was a secret thing with me that nobody knew about. When I climbed stairs with anyone, I always had to be first to the top. Then one day, I admitted it to Mathias, which was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Now it’s turned into a tactical battle where we both pretend we aren’t even thinking about it. I have got an incredibly intense, competitive instinct, ridiculously so, but I’ve learned to dial it down – these days I can play Monopoly with my family without going completely wild!”

The competition in Rio was an experience that was both challenging and inspiring for the Olympic debutante who was then sailing solo. For her country however, it was a major disappointment – the 2016 Games was Norway’s worst in 52 years, with the only medals coming in handball, wrestling and rowing.
“My target was to make the top ten who qualified for the final. I did well in the trials the previous year and I’d won a pretty big regatta just before leaving for Brazil. I wouldn’t say I was overconfident, but I felt comfortable that the target I’d set was achievable. The dis-appointment you feel when you’re not able to realize this is -massive, but it became a big part of the evaluation process afterwards. To pinpoint what went wrong, and to create a plan for how you should perform better next time, helps you towards acceptance and to move forward. That’s part of the process to become the best,” Bue says.

Over the course of a week, she puts in about 36 hours of training. On top of that, she spends many more hours on marketing, doing her accounts, sponsorship work, traveling, working on the boat and all the other tasks that are part and parcel of the small “enterprise” that is MollattBue. 
“I’ll never forget the first time I had to miss a disco party at elementary school because we had a Tuesday regatta at the club. I need to find the right balance -between sport, home life, my studies and so on. There are many regattas a long way from home ahead of us, such as Tokyo, Oakland and Melbourne. I think in total, we’ve been home maybe once in the past five months, so in some ways going home feels a bit like being on holiday,” she says.

There has been another price to pay, too. In order to concentrate 100% on her medal dreams, the time she’s had to dedicate to training has been dragging down her grades. Luckily, Bue has been granted leave from her studies at the Norwegian Business School, giving her the opportunity to avoid adult life just a little bit longer.

“I’ve thought a bit about life afterwards, but as yet I have no idea what I want to do. It’s a bit like sailing, in that there are so many different things that I think are fun. It depends on the economics, but I’m really keen to sail at the next Olympic Games in Paris. In our sport, most sailors perform best when they’re about 30, as it’s so experience-based,” says Bue, who will be 28 when the Tokyo Olympics open on 24 July 2020. 

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