Episode 30: Annette Duetz & Odile van Aanholt | Competitive Excellence, Passion & Sailing
In this episode, Waleed Siraj sits down with the dynamic duo of the 49’er class, Annette Duetz & Odile van Aanholt, who have their names etched in sailing history with their Conny Rietschoten Trophy win. With 4 world-titles combined, and ranked #1 in their class, Annette and Odile are at the very top of their game approaching the Olympics this year.
We talk about their roots, origins, purpose, sailing, communication and the ultimate ambition.
Waleed Q&A with Annette Duetz & Odile van Aanholt
W: Annette, Odile, thanks for joining us. Odile, can we start with a little bit about where you grew up, where you come from?
O: I was born in Curacao, which is an island in the Caribbean, right above Venezuela. On a clear day, you can see it. Curacao is an independent country, but it’s part of the Netherlands.
My parents moved there because they wanted to take a year off from normal Dutch life. They ended up never leaving because they love the island so much. I’m the youngest of four. And my whole family was already into sailing. My dad went to the Olympics when I was two years old. He always had a passion for it, from when he was really young. Then his dad died when he was 20. So he had to stop his sailing career and earn money to support the family. When he was 38, he thought, ‘I’ve always had this dream and I’ve never been able to accomplish it. So I’m going to do it’. He got back into competitive sailing at a very late age.
W: Wow, thirty eight, you said.
O: Yes, and he had four kids. It was quite a job for my mom, too, having four kids at home and a husband flying around the world sailing. But that’s what started sailing for me. As the youngest of four, I just wanted to be like my older siblings. Whatever they did, I wanted to do – and if possible, do it better! That’s how sailing started for me, wanting to do what my brothers and sister did. On Curacao, it’s warm. You fall in the water and it doesn’t really matter. So I started young and I loved it.
W: How about you, Annette? Was sailing in your family?
A: Yes, definitely. Both my parents used to sail. They both sailed for a short time at a professional level. My mom went to the Olympic Games. My dad did it for many years. He didn’t make it to the Olympic Games, but he was in the national team. I grew up in the east of the Netherlands, where there’s not much water around. So it was different. When I was around six, we got a holiday home in Friesland in the north, where there are a lot of lakes. That’s where I learned to sail. We sailed every weekend and every holiday. For me, it began as a hobby, something to do in my free time. I have one sister, she’s a year older than me and we did a lot of sailing together. When we were 13 and 14, we found it a bit boring to go sailing with my parents. At that age, you’re a bit stubborn and want to do your own thing. But then my dad suggested we try sailing a new kind of boat – a 29er. So we did and it was so difficult. We couldn’t sail in a straight line for 30 seconds without capsizing. But we loved it. We wanted to get better at it and it was a real challenge. From then on, we trained a lot. We joined a Dutch training group and they sailed regattas. In that way, we rolled into the professional sailing scene and into racing as well.
W: So for both of you, sailing was in your blood already. If your family sport had been something else, like tennis or football, do you think you’d be doing Olympic tennis or Olympic football instead?
O: There’s a pretty high chance I would because a big part of what I like about sailing is the competitiveness. I like doing something in so much detail, putting so much energy into it and then performing when it matters. That happens in other sports as well. But sailing is unique because it’s like chess on the water. It’s as much a mental game as it is physical. And I really like that. I’d like to think I would have got into sailing anyway, but you never know.
A: Sailing isn’t on TV much so most people don’t know much about it. A lot of people get into it because either their family or a friend is into it. I played other sports as a kid – tennis and hockey. I also did swimming, running, ballet. I had the opportunity to choose any of these sports. But sailing was the one.
W: Can you explain sailing in simple terms? Because before I knew anything much about sailing, my conception of it was people trying to cross the ocean in a huge boat with a sail on it. What happens in competitive sailing, exactly?
A: We sail in a quite a small boat. It’s five meters and it’s just the two of us. Odile is steering and I’m trimming the sails. The boat is quite narrow so it’s quite unstable. So just to go in a straight line, we have to do a lot to keep our balance. We do it with the sails or we do it with our body weight. It’s quite a physical game. A race is about 30 minutes long and in that 30 minutes, we have to sail two laps around a race course with about 25 boats. The boat that finishes first, gets one point. And if you finish last, you get 25 points. In an event, we usually do 12 races. And whoever gets the lowest score, meaning they’ve sailed the best across the races, wins the regatta. There are buoys in the water and we sail from one buoy to the other. We get there by having a fast boat – going at high speed. But you can find smarter ways to get to the marker by looking at the wind and seeing, for example, where there’s a darker patch of water. Dark water means there’s more breeze.We use our eyes to map our course. In that way, it is a bit like ocean racing. But they also do more with meteorology – big scale wind systems and high pressure etc.
O: For us, our first buoy, our first marker in water, is directly head to wind. But you can’t sail directly into the wind, so you need to sail at a 45 degree angle towards it. You either go 45 degrees to the right and then back towards the marker, or you can go to the left and then head in. You need to alter your course several times to get to the marker. Plus, you have options about whether you want to head to a darker patch of water, or you can sometimes use wind shifts. We’re racing against ourselves, to get to the marker as quick as possible with the wind. But then we have 24 competitors as well. Who all want that dark patch of water. If you sail behind someone, you get what we call dirty air, because they have the wind in their sails and they’re disturbing the wind in your sails. It’s a big game of trying to position yourself on the right side. It becomes very strategic and tactical. And because we sail a double-handed boat as well, a lot of communication comes into it. If I’m steering and I want to go a certain way, I can’t just do it. Annette needs to know what’s happening as well, and she needs to tell me if she agrees with what we’re doing. There’s no hierarchy, we do it together. And you can see more and do more if you use both people.
W: How do you communicate in a place where you can’t really talk to each other and things need to happen really quickly? How does it work in terms of decision-making?
A: We are actually quite close to each other in the boat. Our heads are about 20 centimeters apart so we can hear each other quite well. We try to sketch a picture of the course before the race, and also during it. We talk a lot about observations and if our picture of the race course shows, for example, a dark patch of water on one side of the course, the decisions are quite obvious.
O: In that case, it comes naturally, because we’ve both talked about the dark patch where we want to go. It’s also about prioritizing. If we say that our priority is just speed, boat speed, and we know where we’re going, we just need to get the boat to go really fast. So our communication will be a lot about boat speed. Some things always take precedence. For example, if there’s a boat coming towards you, speed doesn’t matter anymore. So we change focus to what we’re going to do about that boat. Are we going to go behind it or in front of it? We use voice changes too. When there’s another boat, we’ll use shorter words and put a little bit more power in our voice. Then the other person knows that this is relevant and they need to act on it straightaway. When there’s more breeze, there’s more sounds. The waves are often higher and louder, so then you change your tone as well as your volume. We try to talk in a nice but efficient way. Sometimes we’ve just got to say something directly, and we know that there’s no hard feelings. We’re both working towards the same end goal and if we talk sharply, it’s not a personal thing. Sometimes things do come across wrongly and might feel hurtful. But you learn to help each other out as well and understand why someone is reacting in a certain way.
A: You get to know each other well, being so close for so many years.
W: Can we talk about nature versus nurture in sailing? There are some things that are in your control – the nurture – like how hard and how often you train. Then you have other things, such as your mental strength and how you communicate. It’s a bit harder to measure how you’re progressing in these. When it comes to nature, you guys grew up around water and grew up sailing. From what I understand, sailing is about feeling – feeling the changes in the wind and the water. So what makes you stand out? Do nature and nurture come into it? There are 25 teams with the same equipment, and they’re all working just as hard. Do you all have an equal chance of winning?
O: There’s definitely some talent involved because you see a lot of people working really hard and they never get to the top level. So there’s definitely something extra involved. We have a reputation in our Olympic team that we are naturally talented, and that we don’t work as hard as others. But we don’t really feel that’s true. Because a lot of what seems like talent, things like knowing where the wind is coming from, or feeling the way the boat is moving, comes from a lot of experience. We’ve done this for years and years and years. Sometimes we don’t need words or data to know something about our race because we know the feeling so well. That can come across as talent, but it comes from years of doing the same thing. Everybody can learn sailing, but when you grow up with it, you’re a more instinctive learner because you can feel the small changes and communicate them better. I think that’s why we’re stronger in changing conditions or when there’s a new sort of wave coming in. We’re often the first team to steer or trim the sails a little bit differently. Whereas in easy conditions, we sometimes struggle because there’s less of a difference for us to make. Then we have to accept that it’s about working hard now, putting in the hours, keeping it straight and keeping our heads focused. We sometimes find those conditions a bit harder.
W: How do your personalities compare?
A: Well, we’re both pretty chaotic. That’s an area where we’re a bit too similar to each other. I’m a bit more quiet, a bit more reserved. I analyze more, whereas Odile is a bit more, ‘Let’s do it!’
O: We recently did a thing called management drives where we answered questions about what drives us in a team. It was funny because our results ended up being identical. Nobody would say we’re the same, but I think that result came out because we’ve talked a lot about how we want our team to work and how we think we can progress the quickest as a team. We’ve also created a culture around how we act with each other and we both like it. It’s a balance between being yourself and also knowing that some of your personality traits might not get the best results or be the nicest for someone else to work with. I used to be really fiery and if something came into in my head I would say it, not really caring about my tone of voice. I learned that if you’re in a team, you need to create a nice environment.
W: You don’t want to ignore your personality, right?
A: No, your personality is your strength at the same time. It’s also about knowing each other’s strengths very well.
W: Yes, you can have the same ambitions and same drive, but you can express it in different ways.
W: I read that you have complementary skills. One of you is good at slower winds, correct?
O: We teamed up about one and a half years ago. We were in different teams before that. From when I was young, I preferred light winds.
A: It’s funny because in Curacao, it’s always windy.
O: It traumatized me bit, I think! I’m a small person and in big winds, you need to be strong and very tall. Whenever there are light winds, it’s not as physical and you can play more of the chess game I was talking about I’ve always liked that. Feeling becomes very dominant in light winds – you have to be extremely precise. When I teamed up with Annette, who was also very good in light winds, we had a really good sense of how to make the boat go faster when the boat’s already going fast.
A: It was funny to experience this with each other. Our first event was quite windy. And it was the first time where we realized that can also be easy. For me, breeze always felt like a struggle. My job as skipper is to make the decisions and it’s really hard to make decisions if you’re going slower than the other boats. When I started sailing with Annette, we were going faster than everyone else and it made my job so much easier. It’s nice that we can complement each other.
W: What’s your big vision? What’s your big goal?
O: It’s the Olympic Games in Paris. But the sailing will be in Marseille. There’s no water in Paris – the Seine is a bit too small! Every location you sail in is different – the waves, the wind. Marseille is definitely a cool place to sail.
A: Results wise, we want to peak in Marseille. We also want to sail the best as a team. We’ve noticed that it’s important to get the balance right between setting results goals and process goals. If we just set process goals, we don’t have to worry about the result and can just focus on the things you need to focus on in that moment. But we’ve noticed that when we completely take away the result goal, we lack a bit of fire in our team. When you get to the start line and there’s 25 boats and you all want to be in that same position, you need to some fire inside you that says, ‘this is my spot and no one’s going to take it from me’. When we’re in Paris, we want to have a nice balance between focusing on the process and wanting to sail really well, in combination with wanting to really go for it.
W: Does the pressure ever get to you?
A: Yeah, for sure. But at the same time, we are quite good with pressure. If it’s race time, we can forget about all the details and just sail in that flow state. We get this the most with high pressure events – we almost perform better. Maybe also because other people perform worse, we perform better! We’re also really switched on. Sometimes when there isn’t as much pressure, we’ll get to mid-race and realize we haven’t fought for the tough spots. Sometimes I can’t sleep before the race. I sometimes throw up on the water because I’m nervous and I really want to do well.
O: It’s not nice, but it sharpens you and you’re ready to get your elbows out.
A: We do talk about it. We don’t work with mental coaches, but it’s enough just to tell each other. At the briefing, for example, one of us will say, “I’m a little nervous by the way,” and the other person will be feeing the same. It takes the load off to share where you’re at with the other person. We’re quite big on that – sharing how we’re feeling that day. Because sometimes one of us might need a motivating kick in the butt. But if they’re feeling down, certain words will have the opposite effect. It’s good to know where the other person is mentally, to be able to help them in the best way possible. With our coach, sometimes we only have five minutes in between races. We go to the coach boat, and it’s super important to take on what our coach says, because he can only say a few things, and then we have to go into the next race. There’s a balance around how much he says about what happened in the last race, and how much is he going to say about the next race coming up. It took some time to get that right.
O: We both prefer not to talk too much about what happened in the past, because then we can prepare ourselves for the next race, breathe and get ours mind empty again, and be open to new things. Otherwise you can get stuck in your head and the next race might be completely different.
A: We’re not in a swimming pool, where the conditions stay the same. It’s always changing. In that way, sailing is a nice way of looking at life as well. You have to be so open, and you have to look forwards, to the future. If a wind shift didn’t go your way, you need to let it go and do your best for the rest of the race.
W: You’re in nature and you have to be so present with the water. I had a surfing lesson and the teacher wasn’t teaching me how to get on the board correctly. He encouraged me to be calm on the board and it’ll come. I hear that in the way you are describing sailing. The water is different every day. If you’re not present, you’ll get stuck with chasing the best spots.
O: In competitive sailing people want to control all the details but you have to take a helicopter view and see what’s actually going on.
A: It’s difficult to do under pressure but you need to relax and look around and keep feeling it, and don’t tense up.
O: It feels a bit like therapy in a way because in our daily lives we’re on our phones a lot. It’s so nice that we can put our phones away, disconnect, and be in nature. For the first half na hour back on shore, you forget you even have a phone because you’ve been living in the moment. We’re really lucky to have a sport like this where we’re out at sea and we get to enjoy nature.
A: At the same time, we’ve been working with some data from you guys for our last event. It’s super useful and we learned so much afterwards. At the same time, we lost the freedom of feeling and looking. It’s great for learning but then to perform in the moment, you need to let go of it and be present. We definitely sail best when we sail with flair, as they call it. Staying casual stages for improving and like hitting yourself of hard a bit like, okay, this, this and this and then at one point letting it… go again and know that you have those extra tools in your backpack.
O: Yeah, you upskilled in the meantime while like putting in this hard work and this while you’re not free sort of while you’re learning, while you’re processing, rewiring your brain and then.
W: Yeah, it’s such a delicate balance, right? To measure is to know. You have that really delicate balance where if you start measuring things and the data tells you what’s true or not true about how you felt in the race, that’s surprising. You have to find that balance where you listen to the data to help improve your feeling during the race.
O: When it reveals interesting, unexpected things, you’re able to question yourself.
A: But it can definitely be hard. The first time we had data on board, we had a really strict coach and he was showing me the data about where we were losing. It really affected my confidence.
O: We have sensors on the boats to measure, for example, the heel of the boat or how we’re steering, or how our sails look. Sometimes you know what you need to do, but you just can’t get there. It can be so frustrating. It takes time to learn how to work with data and when you want to use it.
W: That’s the same for most companies, not just you. We see that all the time. Tell me about the sacrifices you’ve had to make to get to the Olympics.
O: We are away from home a lot at the moment. Most regattas aren’t in the Netherlands so we travel a lot. And you have to sail at a certain place before a regatta because all your equipment is there. In winter, we train abroad as well. We’re away for at least 200 days a year and we miss home quite a bit.
A: Also, I didn’t complete my studies and that was quite hard. I’m the only person in my family who didn’t. I really had to convince my parents at one point that this is what I really wanted. They were against it at first, but after a while they saw that I was improving and developing and although it wasn’t what they’d planned for me, I was still growing and learning a lot. The reality is that we’re making a minimal income now. And we’ll be 35 when we finish, so it’s a bit scary. You really take a risk. It’s hard socially as well, because we’re abroad a lot. But also, we’re thinking about our sport so much. Even if we only sail for two hours a day, we’re thinking about it all day. You miss certain events. And I can’t always be there to support people emotionally either, even online. It’s not a nine to five job so sometimes I’ll have hours to call someone when they need it. But when I’m preparing for a regatta, I won’t answer anyone on WhatsApp and I feel so guilty afterwards. In elite sport, you have to be a little bit selfish. For example, with sleep. We need to sleep well otherwise we won’t perform well. That means my partner sometimes has to sacrifice his sleep so I can sleep well. So there are sacrifices even though what we do is really cool.
O: I live with my boyfriend and my dog, and with the amount of times I need to go away or get a lift to the airport – I sometimes feel guilty. Everyone’s so supportive around us and really wishes for us the best but life revolves around us.
A: We can give back by inspiring people, and showing that things are possible, and sharing and things that we’ve learned such as teamwork and communication. My parents have said they wish they were as wise when they were my age. But it does feel weird that their life revolves around us.
W: That’s really insightful. If you want to do something exceptional, you have to take the path that other people aren’t taking. And that comes with a lot of sacrifices that can make you doubt yourself. But it’s your passion, you’re doing it for a reason. You made a decision at a very young age that that’s what you were going to do. How has it shaped you as a person? How do you think you might be different if you hadn’t gone into sailing or gone into competitive sailing?
O: I took a break for six months. Before Annette and I started sailing together, we were sailing in opposite teams. And in sailing, there’s only one spot per country to go to the Olympics. So, we were actually fighting for that one spot. It was so close – a really big battle. And Annette and her team ended up making the Olympics and I didn’t. After that, I took a six month break and my partner quit. I needed that time to step back and think about why I was sailing? I did a yoga teacher training and it brought up questions like, ‘why do you want to do certain things in life?’ It made me realize I really wanted to go back to sailing. I feel that if you find your passion in life, it’s so much easier to go with it because you do it with joy. If we’ve lost our joy with sailing, we shouldn’t be doing it. Annette and I often ask ourselves why we’re doing it. It makes us quite purposeful in what we do.
A: We’re not doing something just because other people are doing it. If I wasn’t into sailing, it would be so easy to just go to university because that’s what I think is right or what society says we should do. But we have the chance to really think about what we want.
O: I think for anyone who has found what they really want to do, it’s empowering. Everything you do has a reason behind it so you have really strong motivation. We can’t be doing this as grannies and even now, it’s quite hard on our bodies. So we’ll have to ask and answer this question again. We’re definitely lucky to have found something that’s we’re so passionate about. It’s really unique because we’re doing it with just us and our coach. We have a big team of staff behind us but day to day it’s just the three of us and it’s cool that it’s such a small environment where it’s really just about us and we have the power to change things if we don’t like it.
A: We often remind each other that our lives are really special. It’s not always easy. It can be really hard, but we want to do it and we believe we can do it.
W: It’s a privilege and a very scary thing to do at the same time, right? You’re not following the usual path of university, job, get married, have children, maybe with some variations thrown in. You’ve gone fully in. You’re fully into this thing and it has to work out. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from sailing?
O: One of the things you learn from sailing is that not everything is in your control. Sometimes you need to take what nature gives you and make it work. That’s what you really learn from a young age if you’re sailing.
A: For me, it’s not being scared to admit you’re wrong or that you need help. You’re only going to learn if you talk about your mistakes or things that are going wrong or things that you’re struggling with. Then you can actually make a step forward. It’s a lot easier to pretend you didn’t do anything wrong and keep going. But then you don’t find out why something was going wrong.
O: It’s not a bad thing to be wrong or to make mistakes.
A: Your ego doesn’t want to be wrong. But that’s not really you, because you do want to improve. Sometimes it’s just hard to hear someone say that what you’re doing isn’t constructive or helpful. Once you accept it’s okay to be wrong and it’s okay to make mistakes, that’s when you start learning. The learning part is almost more fun than the peak performance achieving parts. Getting better every day, that’s what makes it fun.
O: It’s especially satisfying, I think. Winning is fun, but the real gain is in getting better at it.
A: It’s the same in day to day life. Growing as a person is more important than being the perfect person.
W: Like you said, seeing yourself change and grow as a person is probably more exciting than winning the trophies. I’m curious about at what point do you think it’s enough? Take Novak in tennis for example. He’s won 26 grand slams I think. He’s broken all the records and he’s still at the peak and beating the new kids that are coming up. Do you ever wonder, ‘once we’ve achieved our goal, then what?’.
A: We’ve had that a little bit after big championships. You put so much into it and then you win it. The next day, you’re still the same person. Nothing’s changed.
O: That’s why focusing on results is not enough. Because when you feel when you feel bad, you’re going to feel really bad about yourself.
A: But when you feel good, you feel good for a really short time and it’s over. That’s why it also about how you got there. How do you make yourself proud? It’s not by results, it’s by enjoying the process. And Novak still needs to get better every day to win against all these new kids who are coming in who are upping the level.
W: Let’s touch a little bit on the sponsorship with Portera and how data has helped you guys. We talked about the intersection between feeling versus data. How is this partnership helping you in terms of the data that’s being collected? I understand there are only two devices you’re allowed to use during a race.
O: Just one.
W: Ok, and what is that device?
O: It’s a GPS tracker.
W: So it’s not even that useful while you’re in the boat.
O: No, we can’t use it during the race. But we can use the data from our boat and from all the other boats at the race course.
W: Tell me how you’ve already used that data and what the vision is for implementing it in the future.
A: For now, we use it mainly for starting goals. We start on an imaginary line between two buoys or one boat and a buoy. You can’t see an actual line. At the starting gun, you want to go over it as quickly as possible. So it’s quite a challenge. If you start well, you have a free wind and you’re not in the dirty air of other boats. With the data, we can see how far behind the line we were at the start gun. We use it to tell us some other things as well, like our starting speed.
W: Are you able to take that data and apply it afterwards? How do you use that data when conditions are always different?
O: We know how things looked at the time, so we can use that as a reference. Next time, we know that if it looks like that again, we’re actually still, for example, 20 meters away from the line. We used it in the European Championship and we set certain goals. One of the things we saw was that we didn’t have enough speed over the line. Another thing was that we were too far away from the line. And sometimes our positioning compared to the other boats wasn’t good. So then the next day we were able to use it, by judging how many seconds before the start gun we need to trigger the boat. We’re essentially stopped, or parked before that. But the data showed us that in those wind conditions and these type of waves, six second was not enough. Luckily, that week, we had almost the same wind conditions and waves every day. So we were able to try seven seconds to get closer to the line by the time of the start gun. We could have tried even earlier but you don’t want to be too early to cross line because then you’ll get a disqualification and you automatically get last place. We’re very scared of that – that’s what’s been holding us back. It’s better be on the safe side. But if you’re always on the safe side, you’re always too late. If you’re never too early, you’re always too late. What’s nice with the data is that is shows us the facts. We were still 15 meters away from the line at the start. Sometimes you can think it was a great start. But then you check the data and see that at the start gun we were going at three knots and another team were already at five knots. So we can see we need to accelerate earlier. It can be easier to learn it from data than hearing it from someone because there’s no subjectivity about that person’s interpretation.There’s no questioning about it. We want to use it in training more when we can.
W: Okay. My last question. What is success to you?
A: Success means to keep on learning, keep on loving what we do, keep on growing. Being a champion or winning Olympic gold is high on the list. We really want to do everything we can to get there. But it’s also about how we get there.
O: For me it’s being happy. Whenever you feel happy, life is good. It doesn’t mean smiling every day because that’s just not realistic, but feeling a certain sense of happiness or peace inside of you. If we can achieve that and help the other person achieve that as well. If we finish the Olympics and we’re happy and peaceful about our process and how we did it, I think whatever the results, we’ll probably be happy. The nice thing for us is that we’re now at a level that when we achieve these things, like being happy and peaceful, that results are also pretty good!
A: It really helps.
A: At the same time, we wouldn’t be happy if we were partying every night. Our happiness comes from doing what we think is right.
O: What does success mean to you, Waleed?
W: Success for me is something that you attract as a result of the person you become. If you are trying to become rich and make money, you will attract that money and you will call that success. If you’re trying to attract an Olympic medal, I think you will attract it. And that is what you will define as success. So, I don’t think it’s one thing. I think the most important thing is the person you are becoming. It’s important for me to define who I want to become. I think everyone should try and answer that question. The things you attract because of that decision – that is success. I’ve never been asked that question back, so thank you.
Annette and Odile, I wish you the best of luck with your coming championships. I know you will get the Olympic medal.
A: Thanks so much.
O: Thank you.