Episode 29: Sailing, Innovation & Success | Annemiek Bekkering – Sailing Innovation Center

In today’s episode, we’re joined by Baris Kavakli and Annemiek Bekkering. Annemiek is a 2x World Champion, 1x European Champion and an Olympic Bronze Medalist in the Women’s 49erFX class in competitive sailing. Now taking on a role as a project manager with the Sailing Innovation Center, she’s looking to take this sport to the next level.

Baris’s Q&A with Annemiek Bekkering

Annemiek Bekkering is a former competitive sailor from Holland. She won a bronze medal in the women’s 49er FX at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with teammate Annette Duetz.

Today, Annemiek is working closely with the Sailing Innovation Center to understand and evolve the sport, exploring how innovation, data and technology can support the next generation of sailors.

In this Q&A, Annemiek reflects on her career, how she views competitive sailing, and her vision for the future of sailing.

BK: Welcome Annemiek. You’ve been an Olympic sailor for the Netherlands for many years. You’ve done three campaigns and two Olympic games. We would love to hear about your journey as a competitive sailor. When did you start sailing?

A: Most people who start sailing, start in a small boat called an Optimist. You’re allowed to sail in the Optimist until you’re 15. In Holland, we have over 100 young kids who sail at the weekend and race quite competitively. So it’s very good if you want to train and race in an Optimist.

I was 10 years old when I started competing in national competitions and I enjoyed it very much. I wasn’t that focused on winning at that stage, but it was very good base for me.

At the age of 15, I had to decide whether to focus on sailing in a one person boat or in a two person boat. For me, the decision was quite easy. I’m quite small so I had to go for a two person boat otherwise I would capsize if there was even a little a bit of wind.

There are many options within that choice too. You can choose more traditional sailing, in a 20 or 29er or a catamaran like an Acra 15. In my case I went for the 29er, which I thought was quite spectacular and a lot of fun.

Almost all my friends went to the 29er. It has two sails. One person is in the trapeze. And then you can hoist on the extra gennaker, which goes very fast. The downside of this boat is as soon as you put it in the water it will capsize. So for the first few years of sailing a 29er, you’ll experience some swimming!

BK: Can you explain the trapeze set up? Do both people trapeze on the 29er, or just one?

A: Yes, one person trapezes and one person is sitting, like in a 49er. So it’s actually quite good to go from the Optimist to the 29er and then to a 49er.

At that age, I thought sailing with others was a lot of fun. I made some really good friends – who are still some of my best friends.

At some point you outgrow the 29er because of age and experience. You can then decide if you want to go into the Olympic dinghy classes.

In my case, I chose to move on to a keel boat, which was completely different. After an Olympic campaign in that boat, I decided I preferred the 49er FX and I was actually better at it.

From then on, I sailed in the 49er FX, and it became and Olympic class.

BK: What is the difference between the 49er and 49er FX?

A: The only difference is that the mast is a bit shorter in the FX, so the sail is smaller.

For the 49er, you have to weigh at least 160 kilos as a team. For the 49er FX, the minimum is 130 kilos to be able to compete. 80 kilos is not a very realistic weight for a woman or girl, and in my case I’m small so it’s just not possible.

BK: You started sailing the 49er FX in 2012, is that right?

A: Yes, 2012. Just after the Olympic Games in London.

 

BK: Who was competing in the London Olympics? What inspired you there?  

A:  The funny thing about my sporting or sailing career is that I was never really focused on the Olympics. I didn’t have the Olympic dream as a 10 year old. I just loved sailing. I loved being on the water and I had a lot of friends I could play with.

So when I did the Olympic campaign for London as part of the match race team with the keel boat, I saw what the Olympics were like and got an idea of what it would be like to be in an Olympic campaign myself. After seeing the London Games, I decided it was  something I wanted to experience. It became my next goal, to get on that Olympic stage.

Some people have that dream at 10 years old. They think, “I want to be an Olympic hero or an Olympic medalist”. I had it a bit later. But that’s fine – it worked for me in the end.

BK: It’s never too late. When you started the campaign in 2012, was that with Annette or somebody else?

A: I started with somebody else – with Claire. It was really cool. The 49er FX was a new Olympic class from 2012. Claire and I started off in FX, learning a lot every day. But we were both quite short and in FX you’re both in the trapeze, so the taller you are, the better.

After a year, we decided we should look for different options so we could be the best in the world and not just the best in Holland. So we changed crews and I started sailing with Annette and then Odile who is now part of Team Portera.

BK: Can you walk us through your Olympic journey? It leads to what you do now, which is quite interesting. I would like to understand what drove you to the first Olympic Games and then the second Olympic Games.  

A: After not competing in the London Olympics, I had this spirit of really wanting to experience an Olympic games and I wanted to win a medal.

Then the FX, which I was more passionate about, became an Olympic class. The first years in the FX class were quite special because you would learn so quickly and it’s such a fun boat to sail.

Our selections were very difficult. I was sailing with Annette, and Claire was sailing with somebody else, and it was very tight battle. You always have two selection events in Holland to qualify for the games. On the first event on the first day, we broke our mast and that had a huge impact on us. Mentally, we had a breakdown and we came in at 20th or something.

BK: Did you miss a race as well?

A: Yes, we missed one race. So we had not completed one and missed another. To have that on the first day of the event, it was such a mental shock.

It doesn’t mean you’re going to end up 20th. You can still make it up to the top five. But we couldn’t handle it.

Then two months later, we had the second qualification event. On the first day, we broke the mast again. You couldn’t make it up!

However, we’d had two months to challenge ourselves to be better at it. So we actually had a really good event. Up to the last day, we were in third place, which would have been good enough to qualify for the games.

But the medal race was so tense. We made a mistake at the start. And then we lost it. We lost the overview. We went to the wrong side. And we came last, which meant 20 extra points.

It meant we came fourth at the event and we wouldn’t go to the Olympics in Rio. It was very intense. We both put a lot of pressure on the boat selections. Luckily, there are different ways to qualify. We had the CNSF limits, which we made and the others didn’t.

In the end, around two months before the games, we were selected.

BK: That’s so interesting. Up until two months before the Olympics, you were just sailing, not knowing whether you were going to be there. Then for the last two months, you needed to speed up in terms of training. Both physically and on the boat maneuver skills.

A: Yes, it was complicated. When we first lost the qualifications, we felt that that was the end. So we pretty much disappeared for a month. Then we realized that the other teams still needed to have the CNSF limits and if they didn’t make it, we would still have a chance. We decided that if was still an option, we would just continue training. But there was no money.  There was no Federation support.

So, we had to be quite creative to find a way to keep going. Looking back, we both realize that this year was super important for us because we took control of everything.

We took control of the budgets, we took control of the planning, the training partner, the training. We took control of what we wanted to be like.

BK: And you couldn’t break any more masts!

A: No, there was no money to break masts.

In the end, it was a super important year, but it was really difficult. And only two months before the games, we heard we could go.

At that time, we were top five in the world at the events. But the games in Rio were too much for us. As a team, we were still not at the right level to perform. So we ended up seventh in Rio and we were both quite disappointed with the result, but also with the teamwork.

BK: For the listeners, you never get disappointed for being 17th in the Olympics. That’s a huge achievement in your first Olympics after only a couple of years, three years of work. Three years of work sounds quite a lot and intense. But still being seventh is a dream for many.

A: I completely understand. But we were mainly disappointed with how we approached the event and the teamwork. We felt that we could have achieved so much more.

After the games, we went our separate ways for a little bit. I did some studying and then there was a big squad in Holland with eight girls. We could join in with the girls and pick up where we left off at Rio.

After a year, we decided to come back together as a team. For four or five years in a row, we had always been in the top five – we came fourth or fifth in the World Championships.

It was a really good result but not a medal. We said if we want to go to the Olympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo, let’s change something. Let’s aim for a medal and not come fifth – it’s a good result, but as top athletes, we want to win.

We got some help from the top coaches from the Federation. We worked a lot with Aaron McIntosh, the windsurf gold medal coach. He helped us change our mindset, especially around looking further forward.

Not just in the literal sense of looking forward in a race, but also figuratively, as in what’s the next step? What can we do better? This is the situation now, but if we look one step ahead, what do we want to do?

It helped us a lot, stopping us from getting stuck in the moment or evaluating too much when we should actually be racing.

We also put a lot of emphasis on how we work together. We had one year with Aaron helping us.

The first World Cup after that, we won before the medal race. In Aarhus, Denmark we became world champions. It was a great success – we’d put so much effort in learning to win. It was a big milestone for us. From there, we continued to the games.

BK: Can we zoom in on becoming a world champion? I know there’s a lot of training involved and you need to continually improve. But it’s also about not making mistakes and about being quick to make the right decisions. You can’t drift off and think about something else because that can cost you a lot of places in the race.

How did that specific race go? Were there down points during that regatta, which I know is around 20 races in total? Were you in the top places in every race? If you had downfalls, how did you overcome them?

A: That’s one of the big things we learned – to not stay focused on a bad mistake or a bad result.

For example, on the first day of the Worlds, we made a mistake by going to the wrong side of the course. We finished the race almost last. We talked to our coach and said, okay, we went to the wrong side, but for the next race, we’re going to do this, this and this.

In the past, we would have spent time going over all the things we did wrong. But in that moment, on the day we were racing, we looked at what we could learn from it. We took two learnings forward to the next race. And we won the next race. So the day wasn’t great. But it ended up fine.

The day after that, we knew it was going to be windy. We knew that was our super strength. OK, let’s focus first on the upwind. Then let’s focus on the next leg. Let’s focus on the next thing and not think about the result, or what if we capsize? What if?

The good thing is, there’s two of us in the boat. So if one of us is a bit quiet, the other one’s job is to start a conversation. We’ll ask, “What do you see?”, “What’s the next opportunity?”.

That’s one of the key things we’ve changed in the last few years. During the regatta, when there’s more tension and pressure building, we stay in communication and we keep talking.

If we haven’t got anything to say about the race itself, we’ll say something like, “There’s a jellyfish” or, “I see a cloud”. It doesn’t matter what it is, but we need to stay in communication with each other so we don’t go inside our heads and lose focus.

BK: I see a lot of similarities between the corporate world and this element of the sport. People don’t always communicate well. For example, if someone’s made a mistake, or if something bad has happened, a team can start to drift apart.

If there’s a project that hasn’t gone well, it can be easier to sweep it under the carpet rather than opening up and talking about what the issues were or how we could do better next time.

People just launch something and then leave it. In sailing, you can’t do that. When it’s your only initiative, or the only World Championship that year, you need to make it happen. You can’t just say, “Right, every first day of the championship I’ve broken a mast, so I’m not going to race on the first day of the next championship”. You have to go into the next race thinking, “I will do better”.

This podcast about your story, but I experienced something related to this in the European Championship. I remember on the last leg, we were angry at each other because we hadn’t done well. We would say to each other that we needed to talk it through, but then we wouldn’t actually talk. So we didn’t learn from those mistakes. When the next start signal came, we were motivated again, but we hadn’t fully learned from the mistakes.

The best mindset is to let the mistakes go but learn from them and move on to the next thing. And keep communicating.

 

A: It’s also important to pick your moment to talk about it. Because if you are in a day of racing or working on a project, it might not be the time to start evaluating and picking it apart. You can accept it at the time and understand that this is the situation, so what’s the next thing we can do?

But when something has finished, when a project has a bit more time, that’s the time to sit down and discuss. Otherwise, it stays in your head and you can get a bit frustrated.

Also, if you’ve made a mistake, you don’t need someone to keep telling you about it, because you already know it.

 

BK: And once you admit it, the other person cannot say anything.  The conversation ends.

A: Exactly. You can say, “Ok, I made a mistake. Next time, we’ll try this and for the next steps we’ll do this and that”. And then it’s fine. It works the same everywhere. You do it at the games, you do it at the medal race at the games, you do it in work, you do it in a project. And it’s ok.

 

BK: After you had your first World Championship medal in your pocket, you moved on to Tokyo. That was a difficult period because Coronavirus meant the Olympic Games was postponed by a year. Please tell us about that.

A: After Aarhus, we won another World Championship, and there was only half a year left until the games so we were performing at a really high level.

Then Coronavirus hit. It wasn’t easy. Initially, we kept training because we didn’t know if the games were going to be postponed. As soon as they were postponed, we decided to take a break, reset and make a new plan. We had half a year without a competition and didn’t know what to do. It was difficult to stay focused.

From that December onwards, the year was quite normal. We had the build up to the games, but we hadn’t had a big event to practise our teamwork and our mental skills. We still had them, but if you don’t keep training them, they become weaker.

When we got to the games, we were super excited and very strong as a team. We were focused on doing it together and communicating well. We had some really good days, and we had some okay days. And we went in first into the medal race – we went in with the yellow bib.

The medal race was postponed for a day so we had to wait two days. They’re not the nicest days of your life because you’re extremely nervous.

 

BK: What was the points difference?

A: It was only a two point difference, so whoever won that race was going to come first overall. In that race we were quite close to the boats around us but we made two mistakes in the downwind so we lost the connection and then we couldn’t keep up.

In the end, we won the bronze medal. I can now say I’m very proud of that. But in that moment, it felt like we’d lost all our all our strength and skills. We made a mistake and it was the last moment of the race so there was no coming back from it.

 

BK: I can understand it was hard to take but what you guys have achieved is a dream for so many people. Representing your country in the Olympic Games. You went into the games as medal favourites and that comes with pressure. Maybe other teams were following you in the race or trying to mess with you, and that also made it a bit harder than usual.

A: During the race it was okay and our coach always says pressure is a privilege. So we tried to remind ourselves of that, although it didn’t feel like a privilege at the time. He’s completely right though – if you are in a position where you could potentially win, it is a privilege. If you you’re in 10th or 11th place, you don’t have that pressure. But it’s still fun to be part of at the games.

 

BK: After the games you started doing something else. How did you come to that decision? What prompted you to make such a change?

A: I did Olympic sailing full-time for almost 12 years. At the same time, I finished my studies in human movement science. I loved my 12 years of being a top athlete but I was done with putting all my focus into sport.

I’m also quite passionate about other things, so I was very excited to finish the games, start a family and start living a normal life.

As an athlete, you have friends and family but every decision you make is around sailing. For example, if you go on holiday you have to think about where you’re going in relation to whether you should be resting or staying active. Now I can go on holiday and it doesn’t matter what I do.

 

BK: So you decided to have a change but you wanted to stay within the sailing community. In sailing, you spend a lot of time with your sailing friends, because you can be waiting a whole day for your race.  

A: This Sunday I have a sailing race. The whole day will be about the race. Even though the race will only take 1.5 hours, I have to get there, prepare, talk, debrief, and so on, and it takes the whole day.

I assume around 90% of your friends are within the sailing community. Plus, your husband is a coach. So you’ve decided to stay within that community. I think you wanted to have one hand in the water or something. How did you decide what to do?

A: I stopped sailing because I didn’t want to be an athlete anymore, but I still have a very big passion for the sport and the Olympic team. And, as you’ve just said, the people.

In the beginning, I was mainly helping from a distance. I did some projects, trying to help some younger teams. Then last year, there was an opportunity to start working for the Sailing Innovation Centre as a project manager. For me, this was a great opportunity to help the team and also to contribute to my own development. Not as an athlete but in my professional life.

 

BK: What is the Sailing Innovation Centre?

A: The Sailing Innovation Centre is a Foundation that aims to help sailing sports with smarter projects. With knowledge, with connections. We have partnered with the Technical University, with the University in Amsterdam, with the City of the Hague and the CNSF. Watersportsverbonden is also a big partner.

With them, we work on projects to improve the sport of sailing.

 

BK: What does this involve?

A: One example, is that we currently have a few classes in foiling. We bring in a foil expert who shares their knowledge and brings test rigs so the teams can try their equipment. We also help out with aerodynamics, and with safety.

A really nice project we have at the moment is based on using data to analyze races.

When I stopped sailing, I realised that was something that was missing. We spend many hours on the water and we put a huge amount of effort in. But when we’re home, we can’t train because the boat is elsewhere. During those periods, we train in a gym. And there’s a lot of data available that we could look back on and learn from, to train more strategically when we’re not on the water.

I see it as a big opportunity.

 

BK: I know you have instant data on the water. And you look at your instant data and try to match it with your feelings, how the boat feels? During races, you don’t have any data, is that right?

A: In races, you’re only allowed to use a compass and a timer.

 

BK: So you don’t know your speed when you’re racing?  

A: No.

 

BK: How do you know whether you’re going fast or not?

A: You compare yourself to the rest of the fleet and the feeling you have.

 

Feeling is a big thing when it comes to speed. The boat feels nice. Okay, the boat feels like it’s going right through the water, the pressure on the rudder feels good.

But we can make it a lot more objective by using data.

There is a big role for the Innovation Centre to bring data to the teams, to show data in a simple, understandable way. And to also educate the teams and coaches how to use it.

A lot of athletes are a bit scared to use data. They say, “I just want to keep sailing using my feeling, my instincts”. But I don’t see data replacing the feeling or instincts, but as an extra, a bonus, that helps us justify and quantify the feeling.

So when you know what feels right, you can replicate it in a race.

 

BK: I think a lot of listeners will be able to relate that to corporate life as well. When people see data, it backs up what they know. It’s proof. Or maybe their gut feeling is wrong, and the data shows something else.  

Going back to your discussions about the race with your crew, I assume the data also brings clarity in those conversations. Would you agree?  

A: Yes, definitely. It common that on more tricky days, we both feel something different. It’s nice to be able to have some data to show us what’s actually happening. For example, on a difficult day, I might feel that we’re not very fast, that the boat isn’t feeling right.

I would then be quite tense and put us in positions where we couldn’t be as fast as we want to be. But the data might show that the speed compared to the fleet was fine. Then we know it’s not the speed but it’s our positioning. With that information, we can make the discussion a bit more objective and take the emotions out of it.

 

BK: And how is it being received in general? You said some people are quite against it. I assume some people are embracing it. How do you think the team will behave in the months leading up to the Olympics? We have another campaign starting pretty soon and right now the teams are relaxing before starting a really tough campaign.

We have a lot of team Allianz and team Portera sailors within the Netherlands. What can we do better to help them?

A: We’ve created a dashboard that we can bring simple data to the sailors on a racing day and also after an event.

The key is to keep it as simple as possible. So with just one look, they get the information they need from it. Sailors who are more interested, they can look into it a bit more. For those who aren’t as excited, we feed it through the coaches so they can bring it into the debriefs.

For the people who are a little bit apprehensive of it, we want to show them the positive side of the data. It’s not about showing them they’re not good enough or fast enough or what mistakes they’ve made.

It’s also to show them what they’re doing really well. To show them what their strengths are. But also, if you change this a little bit, you could improve.

So we also use it to trigger people. For the next eight months, we need to see where every team is at with it. Each team is different. So far, the reactions have been very positive. The teams have a sense of confidence in having a project like this behind them. They know there is data they can rely on if they’re unsure about something.

 

BK: What does the schedule look like for the next eight months?

A: It’s mostly about training now. All the teams are going south for a bit to train in warmer weather.

March is the World Championship and then there are two World Cups. The Palma World Cup, is at the beginning of the season in April. After that, there’s one in the south of France.

I expect the teams to be training in the Olympic waters at Marseille from May onwards. They will do some coaching events and some smaller regattas.

From May until the games in July and August, they’ll be super focused.

 

BK: This will be an interesting period.

A: It’s always a special year, the year before the games. People are in it, fully focused.

 

BK: Thank you, Annemiek. Is there anything else you’d like to share? Anything I missed?

A: No, it was great to be here.

 

BK: It’s lovely to see you again. And good luck in your endeavors for the next year.  

How many sailors will be competing in this year’s Olympic Games?

A: I would say 10, but I’m not 100% sure.

 

BK: 49ers, definitely. They got the slot.

A: 49ers FX as well. Accra. Two times Laser. Two times surf. And a kite foil. That’s 11 already. At least 11.

 

BK: Good luck to all the Dutch athletes. And to those all around the world, because all of them are putting a lot of effort into these games, and there’s only one winner, and three medal winners at the end.

I hope they can all progress…

 

A: …and be proud.

 

BK: That they all can better themselves. That is more important than anything else.

A: Definitely, definitely.

 

BK: Thank you.

A: You’re welcome.