Olympic medallists and cousins – the Australian crew striving for Tokyo triumph
Partnerships in sport spread far beyond the field of play and, amid the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian sailor Lisa Darmanin has never been more grateful to have Olympic silver medal-winning partner, and cousin, Jason Waterhouse on her team.
As a fervent planner and lover of schedules, Lisa Darmanin is finding life hard right now.
“Not being able to plan anything is breaking me,” confirmed Darmanin, the sailor who won Rio 2016 mixed Nacra 17 silver. The laugh in her voice barely disguised the truth of her words.
“It is really hard being in Australia so far away from the rest of the world,” she added. “As elite athletes, we are wired to train hard and then compare ourselves against the best in the world. When I think about all the reasons why I love campaigning, a lot of that has been taken away: travelling the world, competing against the best, campaigning with some of my best friends from different countries.
“Now I have to do the not-so-fun part, which is train every day in the gym… all the fun parts are on pause.”
Darmanin is aware that this is a small problem compared with those facing people all over the globe, but it is her reality – and no doubt one shared by many sporting peers.
The issue of being grounded in Australia is a live one for top-class sailors. As Europe starts to emerge from strict lockdown, Darmanin can only watch jealously as her European rivals eye up opportunities for regional competitions.
“In a very skills-based sport it is hard, it’s not like you can just hit numbers and know you are on par with the rest of the world,” the 28-year-old said. “Having this long time away from the best competition is going to be a challenge.”
Aside from crossing her fingers and hoping that she and her New Zealand neighbours might soon be able to form a Trans-Tasman bubble and compete against each other, Darmanin is turning to a familiar source for reassurance.
The Sydney native started sailing with and against her cousin Jason Waterhouse almost two decades ago. Just 10 weeks apart in age and sharing a passion, the pair have long adored each other. And with Waterhouse “much more relaxed”, full of “flair” and at ease in “extreme circumstances”, he has come to Darmanin’s rescue.
“He’s been the motivator, always pushing me to be better even though I can’t see what the month ahead is going to look like,” Darmanin said. “He’s handling it much better than me.”
The intricacies of partnership are among the fascinations of the mixed Nacra 17, a class introduced to the Olympic Games at Rio 2016. Nacra crews travel at speeds of up to 50km/h on a foiling catamaran. Synchronicity is key, and not just if you want to win.
“You don’t have a lot of time to discuss things. You’ve got to make decisions very fast and then react to that decision,” Darmanin said. “A lot of it is inherent trust in the other person that they are going to do the job the best they can.
“We have this very deep connection. A lot of stuff doesn’t need to be said. Even if he says one word, it might be a whole sentence in my mind, I know what that one word means. When you can read their mind it means you can already start to do what they want you to do.”
Being cousins, it seems, is the perfect fit.
“The fact we both share this desire to be the best we can be and have this underlying family love, it makes it so much easier than it could be,” Darmanin said. “I used to sail with my brothers and we did not get on very well – you are not afraid to yell at your brother, or punch him – but your cousin is just distant enough that you might use words before assaulting them…”
The medal-winning cousins have apparently never had a fight. And, despite insisting they spend their time off the water apart, they seem to be utterly inseparable, with Darmanin somewhat sheepishly admitting they swim regularly, and she is best friends with Waterhouse’s fiancée.
Even when on the water for non-Olympic sailing-related business the pair are together. Waterhouse is an active participant in SailGP, an annual global racing championship featuring F50 wingsailed catamarans, and Darmanin is a commentator. It is a role she relishes.
“The reason I got into commentating was because I wanted to share how awesome our sport is, and I felt like I had a really good way of communicating our sport in a way everyone could understand it – the intricacies, tactics and strategies,” she explained.
“I really enjoy it, especially with SailGP because they are such fast and amazing boats. Even if you don’t understand they are just cool to watch, and hopefully I can add an element of insight for people who don’t understand why you can’t go direct into the wind.”
With the F50 an oversized version of the Nacra, Darmanin and Waterhouse are also busy picking up any tips they can. The race for Olympic gold last time out was so frenetically close that the pair never pass up an opportunity to improve. It is part of the reason Darmanin is finding it so hard to remain calm, while sitting in Sydney.
“It was pretty tough for us. We went there with one goal and to come one point short of a gold medal was very bitter-sweet. But now, I have sort of accepted that silver and realised how much we didn’t know, and that’s pretty exciting,” Darmanin said.
Argentinian pair Santiago Lange and Cecilia Carranza Saroli pipped the Australian cousins in Rio, and the duo will once again be a major threat. With the then 54-year-old Lange having had part of his lung removed after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, it was a popular victory – even among the vanquished.
“Jason and I said to each other, if anyone was going to win it, it was pretty special that it was him,” Darmanin said, indicating the enviable spirit that is prevalent in high-performance sailing.
“I compete against my best friends and I want to beat them on the water, but we all hang out after racing and have the greatest time and share our hopes and dreams.”