At Sweet 16, Sweden’s Fia Fjelddahl has Rio 2016 in her sights
by Daniel Smith - ISAF
Sweden’s Fia Fjelddahl has a wise old brain on young shoulders as she bids to qualify her nation for Rio 2016, become a role model and make those closest to her proud at the Para World Sailing Championships in Williamstown, Australia.
Sweet 16, an age that makes her the youngest competitor at the Para Worlds being held out of the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria, but her outlook on sailing is clever beyond her years thanks to a strong youth sailing background and competitive sailing around Scandinavia.
“I usually sail dinghies like the Optimist, the Europe and 29er and before each race, it’s very systematic. At first you compare your speed and then you check which side of the course is better but no one’s been doing that here,” explained Fjelddahl . “The fleet have just been checking their speed and I’m like woah, don’t you want to see which side of the race course is good?”
“I’ve been choosing the right side of the course because the best people have been choosing the left side of the course. All the boats are over there so I have free wind and more space to navigate. There isn’t much difference on each side, the leaders are just better and have more speed than me.”
Over on the right side of the Williamstown race track, the young Swede has been impressive and sits 17th in the 48-boat fleet after six races and occupies the final Rio 2016 Paralympic Games spot on offer, not bad for her first event in the 2.4mR.
“I thought I was going to be last because I’ve only sailed this boat for two and a half months. It’s a big surprise that I’m around 20th. I just wanted to have fun and have experience and if I get the chance to get a Paralympic place then I’ll grab it.”
Around 20th was a calculated guess for Fjelddahl. The youngster is yet to look at the overall results and consequentially, has been sailing without fear and pressure. Fjeddahl has some brave decision making to thank for her great results as she continued, “I look at each race as a whole competition. This is very important because I forget what I was doing two days ago or an hour ago and think in the now, wanting to be first and win each race.
“I like to feel cool and not stressed when I sail. I say to myself what I’m going to do before each race. It’s like I’m meditating whilst I’m sailing. If I don’t look at the results I won’t be stressed. It doesn’t matter if I’m placed first or last I’ve always done this. I sail better by doing this.”
Fjeddahl knows that Rio 2016 is a realistic goal having beaten the odds before and has dared to dream a little, “I would be very happy if I qualified,” she said through an optimistic smirk. “When I was sailing Optimists my goal was to qualify for the Nordic Championships and I did it. I then said to my parents, if I can do it then everybody else can do it. If I get the chance to sail at the Paralympics I will feel like a role model, because again, if I can do it, everybody can do it.
“My friends think I’m doing really awesome. But I don’t know if they see it as big competition, they just see me in Australia on the other side of the world. My friends said to me, if you’re going to Rio, then we have to go to Rio. They have set up this whole team who would cook food and clean for me in Rio which is very funny.”
The dream of reaching the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games is within touching distance with five races remaining at the Para World Sailing Championships. Fjeddahl is unaware of where she’s placed at the midway stage of the regatta but as for her coach, Sara Sandberg, “I’m of course looking at results,” chuckled Sandberg, “I’m studying them all the time. We had a discussion about this. I asked if I was allowed to tell her if she was in with a chance of qualifying so she was able to think about some tactics but I haven’t had a clear answer on that question yet.”
Attention swiftly turned to Fjeddahl as a response was sought, “Hmm,” she paused. “I would like to know why someone may be tacking over me all the time because I would want to avoid that person. I won’t change my plan though. I think I sail better calmer and when I’m doing my own thing.”
Doing her own thing is working in Williamstown, but it’s not an uncommon trait for Fjeddahl. The 16-year-old started sailing when she was eight in summer camps before moving into club racing at the age of nine. At first Fjeddahl feared some aspects of the sport due to her disability, a low form of cerebral palsy, and avoided going out onto the water when the wind was up and the waves were high. Watching her friends progressing on the water made her realise she needed to make her own choices and not wanting to be seen as a beginner all of her life, pushed hard, got back out on the water and found her favourable conditions, “Because I had my handicap I always lacked some technique with tacks so I always had to think better. When I sailed in light wind and shifts I was on the top of my game. Because I sail on a lake I have always done that. I was always quite good at doing it.”
Whilst Fjeddahl learnt her trade sailing dinghies alongside able-bodied athletes, her disability meant that she also qualified to sail within the Paralympic disciplines.
Her coach, Sandberg and the Svenska Seglarförbundet, the Swedish Sailing Federation, always knew about Fjeddahl but at such a young age, being thrown into the pressurised arena of Paralympic sailing would always be a risk. But the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to remove sailing from the Tokyo 2020 sporting program prompted an immediate response.
Sandberg explained, “We have known about Fia for quite a long time but never got to know her. She’s fighting against all the others on the same level and doing really good. We understood she wasn’t interested in Paralympic sailing, this was several years ago, but we were talking to her coaches and when sailing went out of the Paralympics for Tokyo, we knew it was important to get new nations sailing.
“In Sweden, we felt a bit of shame in that we didn’t have Paralympic sailors because Sweden is a good sailing nation and we’ve had many sailors in many Paralympic Games. I called her coach and asked if Fia was interested in Paralympic sailing but she never really gave an answer. It took three weeks and then finally her coach said, “I think she does.” The day after that I was working in Stockholm and I was going to Gothenburg for another reason and I asked if I should bring a boat?
“It was a yes and I loaded the boat onto the car and drove to Gothenburg and she had it to start playing with and then some weeks after that I was down in Malmo, talking to Fia and her mother. She wasn’t training in the boat as no one could coach her because where they trained at school, they didn’t have a crane to launch it so she had to train somewhere else.
“I went there for two days and we started in no wind, we gave it a try and after that we went to the west coast and started training more.
“We got as many people involved as we could. Stellan Berlin [nine time Open 2.4mR World Champion], is a good friend of ours, and we asked him to give us some time and he did. We’ve had support from Swedish Sailing Federation and Sweden’s 2.4mR sailors.”
In addition to the support within her nation, Fjeddahl also benefitted from the support of the World Sailing Paralympic Development Program, a five day coaching clinic that took place before the event. Additional time on the water, expert coaching and at the world’s venue, it was the perfect preparation, “The coaches made the sailors think about things on their own. It wasn’t like, “Fia you have to do this, Fia you have to think about this” you had to figure the boat out on your own, the sails, the shape, the speed and that was really good because you have the capabilities to solve everything. No one can tell you how to problem solve in a race,” said Sandberg.
“Fia is very good at analysing the situations. That is her advantage here. Before we came to Melbourne we maybe had ten hours in the boat. She’s used to big fleets though and not all the sailors here are. She’s figured out her tactics and she knows how to make her own plan, not looking at the top athletes. She knows exactly what to do and sticks to her plan.”
Sticking to a plan is vital and there can be no regrets in Williamstown as the 2015 worlds acts as the final qualifier for Rio 2016. The sweet 16-year-old has her plan, she has her focus but can she take one of the places? Well there’s only one place to find out… http://www.topyacht.net.au/results/2015/paraworlds/index.htm