The Golden Brothers Fantela: Ready to show the best of Croatian sailing

Sime and Mihovil Fantela during the 2019 World Cup Series Final
Sime and Mihovil Fantela during the 2019 World Cup Series Final

After winning a historic gold medal at the Rio 2016 Games, Croatia's most successful sailor Šime Fantela has partnered with his younger brother, Mihovil in the 49ers for Tokyo 2020. 

Sibilings aren't uncommon in Croatia's Olympic teams.

There's the Sinkovic Brothers, who won gold in the men’s double sculls at Rio 2016, and also Ivica and Janica Kostelic, brother and sister alpine skiers who have a combined 10 Winter Olympic medals.

But at Tokyo 2020 there will be a new sibling duo: the Fantela Brothers.

Dubbed 'zlatna braća Fantela’, which means ‘Golden Brothers Fantela’, Šime and Mihovil have taken the 49ers class by storm since they came together in 2017.

Šime, the older of the two, is ranked amongst the best sailors in the world. The 35-year-old has won everything he can including two World Championships across different boat class (470 and 49ers) – a feat only four other sailors have achieved – plus three European Championships and an Olympic gold from Rio 2016 with Igor Marenić.

Tokyo 2020 will be Šime's fourth Olympic Games – he made his debut at Beijing 2008 with Marenić where they finished ninth – but competing alongside his brother wasn't something on his mind until after Rio 2016.

“The year after Rio 2016 and having achieved my dream of winning the gold medal with Igor, who I also call my brother, because he moved to Zadar when he was 15 to start sailing 470s,” he told Tokyo 2020 in June this year. “But with Mihovil, after Rio the idea was to change the boat [class came up] and go for another challenge.”

For younger brother Mihovil, it will be his first time on the Olympic stage. As a former wind surfer (RS:X) he narrowly missed out on qualification for Beijing 2008.

“Since we [Mihovil and Šime] stuck together in the boat, obviously, I was hoping we're going to make the Games and we will have a chance to win a medal,” Šime said.

Just over a year after starting in the 49ers the brothers from Zadar proved they were a force to be reckoned winning gold at the 2018 World Championships and securing a quota spot for Tokyo 2020.

Winning gold with Mihovil was a special moment for Šime and there is a chance the two could stand on the podium together at Tokyo 2020 with how they've been performing. But if there is one thing Šime has learnt in his two decades of sailing, it's taking things one step at a time.

“The memories of Aarhus are really beautiful,” he recalled. “We went there to try to qualify to the country for the Games, and we ended up winning just by going day-by-day and [being] focussed on what we had to do.

“Not being so focussed on the result, just on our performance and it ended up with taking home the gold medal.

“So, we'll go with the same approach to Tokyo. It's going to be probably a long event with everything that Olympic Games has to offer. We have to be prepared for everything and then just go race-by-race, try to do the least mistakes.”

Sime and Mihovil Fantela celebrate their 2018 Sailing World Championships title
Sime and Mihovil Fantela celebrate their 2018 Sailing World Championships title
Sailing Energy/World Sailing

It all started with trying to build a boat

From the beginning, sailing has been a family project.

It started in the unlikeliness of circumstances when the Fantelas' father, Edo, and his cousins decided to build a sailing boat.

“One of the cousins was brave and bit crazy and said, ‘why shouldn’t we build a sailboat?’. They were all in their 30s and they said, ‘yeah, let's do it. Why not?’,” Šime recalled.

Šime explained that his father, while very much involved in sports being a water polo coach for a team in Zadar, was not a sailor. However, the group worked on the boat near the sailing club, with a six-year-old Sime and his cousins always playing close by. And as the story goes, they all ended up starting at the sailing school.

“That's how we ended up being in sailing,” said Šime, who started in the optimist class. “It was close to where we were spending most of the afternoons with our parents. And since I’ve jumped in the boat, I liked it. I like the feeling. It’s still the same today.”

It was obvious early on that Šime was a natural, taking to sailing like a duck to water and by the age of 14 he became a Cadet World Champion in the Optimist class. Mihovil soon followed in his sailing footsteps.

In the 20 years since they've found themselves thrust in the world of sailing and trying to match the top nations, it's been a bit of a family affair.

Edo along with his wife Katja, have always supported their sons – including Igor who they see as their 'adopted' third son – through it all from coaching, travel logistics, sponsors, and everything in between.

“Without family, we definitely wouldn't be here. In the early days, my father and mother decided that they're going to support me because it's hard to follow the rhythm and the programme of the big countries with their budgets but we managed somehow to do it on our own way and our own style,” Šime said.

“The results show that obviously would be much easier for them and for us to have better conditions from the beginning, but we know that we are coming from Croatia and that's just the reality. But we know it's also our strength that we can win against the big nations with what we got."

The golden moment in Brazil

Croatia is a nation known for its love of football with water polo and basketball also quite popular given the history of both sports in the region.

But despite the country’s beautiful Dalmatian coastline, with thousands of islands and over 300 regattas a year, sailing is still relatively small.

“People know more about sailing now since the Rio Games, but it's definitely not a mainstream sport,” Šime said. “I am proud to represent sailing because we are a country on the water and all the world knows us as a beautiful country with a beautiful sea so I'm proud to represent Croatia.”

Before Rio 2016, Croatia had just won six Olympic gold medals – two in water polo and handball and one each in athletics and shooting. So when Fantela and Marenić won gold in the men’s 470-class at Rio 2016 it was a historic moment for more than one reason.

The pair had been sailing together since 2001 and through their junior days they won a host of medals. At senior level, they mixed it with the worlds best winning medals at World Championships, European Champions and on the World Cup circuit in the lead up to Rio 2016.

It had been an incredible week on the water in Rio's Flamengo Park for the Croatian pair and in spite of the tough conditions they came into the last day with a strong lead over their closest rivals.

In the medal race, an eighth-place finish was enough to clinch Croatia’s first Olympic sailing gold medal.

“It was just a very good week for us. I mean, the whole year was very good,” Šime commented. “We were winning most of the regattas, including the World Championships and coming through as favourites and then to deliver the results was something special.”

Fantela and Marenić also contributed to Croatia’s best Olympic Games performance ever with 11 medals including five golds.

“Another big moment was when we arrived home, we had a huge welcoming in our town with many people waiting for us,” Šime recalled.

The duo was welcomed in Zadar on a trabakula Branimir (a traditional boat) in a parade of boats from Vitrenjak. In typical celebration style, they were greeted by pyro which glowed red in the night as the city celebrated the return of the Olympic heroes.

“It felt like we were football players arriving home after the big success, but we were sailors, and I meant a lot to us.”

(L-R) Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic of Croatia celebrate winning the gold medal in the Men's 470 class at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
(L-R) Sime Fantela and Igor Marenic of Croatia celebrate winning the gold medal in the Men's 470 class at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

A change in boat class

Having accomplished all he could, Šime was looking for a new challenge. Changing boat classes from 470 to 49ers seemed to be the way to go.

But there was also another factor. The 183cm tall Croat had always been quite tall from someone in the 470 and was constantly on a diet to stay 69kg. With sailing competitions spread across five to six days and three to four hours out at sea, nutrition is very important.

“I was on the diet basically the last two or three campaigns so 8-12 years of taking care of the diet and trying to go more than the 69kg for my height was quite tight and I got a bit tired, so tired of counting every calorie and basically being hungry most of the time,” he said.

The change to 49ers isn’t without its challenges, there are a few profound differences from 470. It’s more about handling the boat and less about tactics – choosing a good route while keeping the boat going fast and straight.

The 49er also goes much faster, so quick decisions are required, making the communication between the two crew members crucial – although this could be said about any class.

“Every person takes some time to adapt to each other, sailing in a double handed boat is a lot about compromise and teamwork, trying to synchronise as much as possible, plus adapting to each other's temperaments and trying to grow as a team,” Šime said.

“We worked a lot there. Mihovil came from another Olympic classes, but he knows what it takes; a lot of training, travelling, and campaigning so it didn't take us too much time to adapt.

“I think it was good decision to change the class and go for it with my brother.”

Sime and Mihovil Fantela during the 2019 World Cup Series Final
Sime and Mihovil Fantela during the 2019 World Cup Series Final
Sailing Energy/World Sailing

Tokyo ready

Since the 49ers class became an Olympic Sailing event at Sydney 2000, no crew has been able to defend their Olympic title. Spain's Iker Martinez and Xabier Fernandez came close with a silver at Beijing 2008 while Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen of Australia were unable to defend their London 2012 crown in Brazil.

It proves just how unpredictable the class is.

But Šime is confident in the preparations Mihovil and himself have had over the past 12-months despite the pandemic.

“I'm happy how we dealt with the pandemic, how we dealt with situation. We didn't spend much time at home except of course the weeks we arrived from Palma, which was the last official event before the pandemic,” the three-time Olympian said.

After two weeks of quarantine in Zadar, they hit the water almost instantly.

They travelled to Denmark and Italy for two events as they built up to the 2020 European Championships. The conditions in Austria were chaotic from not being able to sail due to the lack of wind to hurricane gusts, it was an event that had it all but the Fantela brothers managed to come away with a bronze medal.

It gave them confidence heading into an Olympic year, knowing they were working well together especially still being relatively new to the boat class, but mentally the achievement was just as important.

“I think mentally that was important to keep working because many people were not allowed to train so I was happy we could do that,” Šime said. “And then as the winter approached, we were allowed to travel a lot. We were sailing in Portugal, in January and February then in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, the last two months.

“I must say I was happy we could travel and sail a lot. But I’ll be honest, I miss that we didn't have more official regattas in build up to the Games.”

With a win under their belt at the Lanzarote Winter Regatta and their boat now on its journey to Tokyo, they have been approaching their final training camp in their hometown Zadar trying to replicate the conditions they’ll have in Enoshima.

Having come to Enoshima in 2019 for the READY STEADY TOKYO 2020 test event, Šime knows exactly what to expect.

“I feel we could push a bit more in the light winds because most of the winter was a medium to strong winds in Canary Islands,” he said.

“So, this last camp we're going to do in the summer is mostly light breeze so we're going to focus on that. And then the last 15 days in Tokyo, we'll see what comes.”

Four years after joining forces, three years after being crowned World Champions, two years since being in Japan and a one year delay, together the Golden Brothers Fantela are looking to light up the waters of Enoshima.

Make sure to tune in when Olympic Sailing 49ers at Tokyo 2020 gets underway from 27 July - 2 August.