In July 2004, Udi Gal and Gidi Kliger left for the Athens Olympics brimming with confidence. The sailing duo was not tipped for glory at the Games, but this didn't stop Gal from declaring that if he failed to win a medal, he would swim home. A month later, the two boarded a plane home - with nothing more than a disappointing 15th-place finish to show for their efforts.
Almost two years have passed and Gal and Kliger have bounced back; and the pair sit atop the International Sailing Federation's rankings for the 470 Class. Gal and Kliger's results over the past month show that they are undeniably the form team on the circuit right now, and the duo is unbeaten in Europe this season so far.
So what has changed?
"The general approach has changed - nothing specific," Kliger says. "We are focusing simply on the truly important things, and not just working as we used to in a systematic way - work and training and that's it."
"Back then, we were caught up in ourselves," Gal explains. "We practiced non-stop in Israel, and had no strength left for the competitions. Now, we have gone back to Amnon Masgura, who trained us in the 420 Class; and it has been like going back to our roots. He told us to go out and compete, and that is what we are doing. We are competing more and training less. It has made us sharper, and we have matured as well. We have a lot more experience; and when it comes to sailing, experience makes the difference. We are a veteran pair, and we have a long way to go still before reaching our peak."
Kliger interjects: "Before the Olympics, we did everything by the book... After Athens, when we began analyzing what had happened there, we came to the conclusion that we must take on and do what is good for us. Every person has a different character and needs something different; every sailor has his advantages and shortcomings, and we were wrong when we thought there is a formula and only it can work."
Gal takes over: "Last year, when we weren't working with a coach, and things were in a bit of a mess in this regard, we started to work on our own; we competed all over the world, and checked what suited us and what didn't. Take our equipment, for example. Before the World Championships last year, we decided to replace the mast of one company for another. We knew it would harm us in the World Championships, but we were thinking ahead. This year, we are winning with [the new] mast; the other sailors have bought the mast because they are copying us, while the manufacturer who made the previous mast is chasing after us and trying to win us back."
But Kliger and Gal's experience and current success does not mean sponsorships and interest. "When we go to competitions," Gal says, "the other sailors don't understand how it is that we don't have a sponsor when everyone else at the top enjoys one; this is still lacking."
Sailing through it all
Gal and Kliger have been sailing together for eight years now. Gal is 26, and Kliger is getting there; but their different personalities - Kliger the introvert vs. the extroverted Gal, who has already earned a reputation as a ladies' man - causes people to believe that Kliger is the older of the two.
Gal was also the one who took flak for displaying a lack of earnest in Athens. "I am the one who they came down hard on - particularly from Gili Lustig, who I love," Gal says. "But he is family, and I understand him. The criticism came from love."
The pair now enjoys the status of the best in the world following the successful run of victories in March and April that have clearly demonstrated their potential. The potential was always there, but now the consistency is there too.
Today, the two leave for their first big competition - the ISAF World Sailing Games, in Neusiedl, Austria. Then comes the European Championships, the World Championships and the pre-Olympics competition, two years before the Beijing Games.
"Obviously, we cannot go on winning competitions all the time," Gal says. "If we finish in the top five in the coming competitions, it would be a significant achievement for us because it will show that we are maintaining our position at the top. We have had fantastic competitions, but tougher days will come. Besides, it isn't healthy to win all the time; a change is good sometimes. Think what would have happened had Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague for the third consecutive time; it would have been too much. It is good if someone else wins a competition every now and then."
Nevertheless, in their current form, Gal and Kliger have already become medal candidates for Beijing. "The competitions in the summer will determine whether we are a part of the game, and if we will be ready for Qingdao," Gal says.
Qingdao, some 600 kilometers from Beijing, will host the Olympic sailing competitions. "We, the sailors, are calling the next Olympics, 'Qingdao 2008,'" Kliger says. "That's the place where we have to succeed."
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