When you return to defend a title there is always pressure, but when you are trying to fill the shoes of a two-time Youth Worlds gold medallist and Olympic bronze medallist there is a different kind of pressure.
That is the unenviable task that faces Russia’s Mariam Sekhposyan as she attends her first Youth Sailing World Championships in the girl’s RS:X. The shoes she has to fill, compatriot Stefania Elfutina.
Elfutina won the Youth Worlds in Tavira, Portugal in 2014 and backed that up with the gold in Langkawi, Malaysia in last year’s edition. From the Youth Worlds, it was Rio 2016 Olympic bronze.
Although the talented Russian has shown the Olympic pathway in stunning style, she has left a bit to live up to for Sekhposyan. “I feel a pressure and a responsibility,” admitted Sekhposyan, “so I will just do my best to keep this high level that Stefania has achieved.”
Sekhposyan recently picked up a bronze medal at the RS:X Youth World Championships in Limassol, Cyprus, so has shown signs that she is more than capable of taking on the winning mantle, but for Sekhposyan, she is also looking ahead, “For the future, I will start to race in the women’s fleet and I hope that will improve me a lot faster with a lot of strong women windsurfers.”
For now though, Sekhposyan is just trying to live in the moment before her jump to the senior ranks, “This will be my last youth event and of course I want to get a medal. But I’m also excited that we travel so far all the way down to New Zealand.”
Despite the pressure and the pedigree, Sekhposyan has a lot of competition in the fleet to medal. One name that comes straight to mind is Israel’s Katy Spychakov.
Spychakov is the current RS:X Youth World champion taking the title just last month and comes in to the championship on top form. Another name that will be in the mix is Great Britain’s Emma Wilson. Wilson has been attending Sailing World Cup events competing among the seniors and was silver medallist at the 2015 Youth Worlds.
Many in the fleet will be competing in Auckland for the final time in the youth ranks, and one of those is Peru’s Maria Belen Bozo. Bozo attended the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Nanjing, China in 2014 and finished ninth. Bozo then finished sixth in the 2015 Youth Worlds. It would seem that Bozo is moving up and she is targeting a medal, “I am really excited,” said Bozo, “It’s my last year in youth and last time I finished sixth. This year I think I have a real chance and it’s going to be a great event.”
If Sekhposyan has pressure to keep the girl’s gold in Russia, France’s Titouan Le Bosq returns, looking to retain the title he won in Malaysia in the boy’s RS:X.
Following his Youth Worlds gold, Le Bosq also won the Youth RS:X European Championships in Helsinki, Finland in July 2016. In major Youth regatta’s Le Bosq is two from two.
Le Bosq didn’t compete at the recent RS:X Youth Worlds in Cyprus, and that title went to Israel’s Yoav Omer. Currently competing in the Sailing World Cup Final Melbourne, Omer is keeping his skills sharp ahead of the pinnacle Youth event across the Tasman.
One windsurfer looking to emulate one of his countries top sailors is Sil Hoekstra (NED) who sees the Youth Worlds as a step toward greater things. “This is the first big event after Rio  for the younger athletes aiming for future Olympic Games.
“It’s a great way to start the year. Its great preparation and the first step on the way to Tokyo and my dream is to compete at Tokyo 2020. That’s what I am aiming for.”
Not only aiming for an Olympic Games, Hoekstra is aiming to following in the footsteps of his double winning countryman, “Dorian [van Rijsselberghe] is a legend. Two times Olympic gold medallist. How he does everything is just amazing.”
If Hoekstra is going to medal he will need to improve on his fifth placed finishes at the 2016 RS:X Youth Worlds and last year’s Youth Worlds in Malaysia.
Aruba’s Mack van den Eerenbeemt finished one place ahead of Hoekstra at both events as the pair missed out on the podium. Hoekstra and van den Eerenbeemt will need that little extra to break in to the podium positions in a strong field.
Van den Eerenbeemt does have more international regatta experience to call upon than Hoekstra. The Dutchman may have ambitions of the Olympic Games, but van den Eerenbeemt has had a taste already when he competed at the Nanjing 2014 YOG.
Another windsurfer with YOG experience is Brazil’s Daniel Pereira. With Rio 2016 still fresh in the memory and with another great to look up to in Ricardo ‘Bimba’ Santos, Pereira will hope that the Olympic legacy can carry him to a Youth Worlds medal.
As all the nations head to Auckland in search of success, the hopes of the New Zealand public will be put in to Patrick Morgan Brian Haybittle who competes in the boy’s section.
Racing for the RS:X fleets will start on 15 December out of the Torbay Sailing Club, Auckland at 09:55 local time for the Boys and 10:05 for the Girls.
By Richard Aspland – World Sailing