Jon Emmett Interview Part 2: Lijia Xu and the 2012 Medal Race

There have been some amazing races throughout the history of the Olympics. Ben Ainslie's controversial match race with Robert Scheidt springs to mind, as does the wonderfully chaotic 49er Medal race at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But, for me, The Laser Radial Medal Race at the 2012 Olympics is probably the most exciting and interesting - and I think it is for a lot of others too. With four potential Gold Medallists, great TV coverage and perfect sailing conditions, the race was a straight battle between the best Laser Radial sailors in the world. The top four in the regatta were all within a point of each other, making it a winner-takes-all race.

And yet it was easy to relate to as a "normal" dinghy sailor: there were no full-on match racing moves; there were no extraordinary boats that many of us have never and will never sail. It was just Lasers, racing around a windward-leeward course - but it was incredibly competitive, incredibly close and it had plenty of drama and excitement as all the potential winners were battling at the front of the fleet.

So of course it was inevitable that I would talk to Jon Emmett about it, as he was the coach of the sailor who won the race and won the Gold.

In his book, Jon prints Lijia Xu's (Lily's) positive affirmation - a sort of personal mission statement that helped her to define who she was and what she was working towards. It is an incredible insight into the mind of someone working to improve and to excel, and it is worth buying the book just for that statement alone.

"It was one of the first things I did"  Jon says. "I got her to write down who she was just to get to know her better. It's a very close relationship (between coach and athlete) - I mean we literally we sailed on Christmas Day - and because I spend more time with the people I coach than with anyone else I thought it was an important part of the process.

"It was interesting - I wrote my personal statement for her in about 10 minutes because at that stage of my life I was very clear who I am, and I'd done it for a long time: you know where you are and where you've come from and where you want to be. For her it took her a long time to do that, but I think it really, really helped her to focus on who she was and what she wanted. I think her personality comes through a lot in that, and that's obviously the type of person I want to work with."

I've come across these kinds of personal statements before - I'm sure we all have - but it is very enlightening to see it done so well. There is a great deal of clarity, and it is also very personal and very motivating. Such techniques come recommended from all kinds of areas - from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Forbes, and it highlights the kind of person that Lijia Xu wants to be. It becomes clear in my conversation with Jon that these are the kinds of people with whom he enjoys working the most.

"I think one of the things with the Olympic circuit is (the standard) is just getting higher and higher. If you look at the Laser class there's maybe 10 people who could win a gold medal, and that wasn't the case a few years ago. When I was young I taught a lot of kids to sail, and then I did a huge mount of club race training, but now I love working with the really driven people, and it is the racing aspect I enjoy."

But being driven isn't enough to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Whatever about the pressures we put on ourselves when we race dinghies (and we've all felt the nerves before a big race or a big event), we can at least take solace in the fact that we weren't performing live on TV with the hopes of the most populated country in the world weighing on our shoulders. As Jon says "It's hard to be out there as yourself and have the expectation of 1.3 billion people watching you from China." So how was Lily on the morning of the race?

"I knew it was going to be a good day", he says "because we had a nice little chat in the morning and I actually made her laugh, so I figured she's pretty happy and pretty relaxed - you know it can be hard work to make a Chinese girl laugh! I thought 'She's not going to be the girl who finishes fourth because she's got her head in the right place', but you never know what will happen.

"One of the things for me as a coach is just to take the pressure away so I just talked about a couple of things: one of them was about giving a performance. I just said to her "You're an actress, you've done lots of rehearsals, a lot of hard work - give your best performance and enjoy it.""

Lijia Xu had done well to be in a position to win going in to the medal race. Conditions hadn't been ideal for her throughout the week, but she had put together a consistent series all the same. But with one point separating the top 4 the last race had a huge amount riding on it, and not just for Lijia Xu. "It was always going to be very, very close and I'm very happy it turned out the way it did. It wasn't Lily's week - she's a light wind specialist and it was a very windy week. (On the day of the medal race) I told Lily 'It's not going to be that windy' but, as you see from the video, it really was, and I wonder if we'd raced an hour later at the same time as the boys raced whether the results would have been different. Another 3 knots of breeze and suddenly its much more about boatpseed. But it's the same for a lot of people - you turn up and you do your best in the conditions."

One of the most notable aspects of the race is the fact that Lily went right on the upwind legs - most notably on the first beat. In the previous medal races the left had paid, so going right when pretty much the entire fleet went left was a brave decision. She didn't have a good lane off the start line, and tacked early and headed off on port, ducking most of the fleet. I wondered at the time if she had ended up on the right of the course because of this but, not for the first time in my life, I was wrong.

"I still have the email I sent to her that morning - about the right hand side and the wind bend, because it's always there." says Jon. "All the other medal races had been sailed in quite light winds, so heading offshore - in other words, going left - had paid because there's more wind on the left hand side.

"But on the right hand side there is the wind bend and, actually, during that day there was no discernible current so that's why it was the right hand side which paid."

Lijia Xu had fought back up to second at the windward mark, but Annalise Murphy was leading and had gone well in the breezier conditions - especially at the start of the week. Lijia Xu's exceptional downwind pace soon had her in the lead, but it was never going to be straightforward. The winner, whoever she was, was bound to have to overcome some tricky situations, and on the first downwind, whilst in the lead, Lijia Xu got a Yellow Flag penalty for excessive kinetic movement.

"We talked about a couple of things the night before and the first one was about the Yellow Flag. She wasn't sure if she'd picked up a Yellow Flag in the opening series, so should she push it, or should she be conservative? I said to her to imagine it's a brand new series, a brand new race. Just sail as you normally would.

"So I'm sure you can imagine how I felt when I saw her spinning to do a Yellow Flag!

"Also, because she's got less than 40% hearing, I always worry that she's not going to hear the Jury - sometimes they're not very clear who they're whistling at."

The thing that struck me as I watched the race live, and even when I watch it back now, is how calm she looks throughout the race, even at the moment when she realises she's been flagged. I ask Jon about the penalty and how she managed to remain calm at such a big moment - not just in the race, or the regatta, but in her life.

"Actually, when she did the penalty it wasn't a good one - the last part of the gybe was terrible - the sail nearly didn't come across! But yes, we talked about this - being professional. A lot of people when they get yellow flags will shout and scream  - you just have to be professional and get on with it.

" It was an interesting flag because the reason for it was that she wasn't turning the boat enough, whereas I think in that wave-set Lily's a very, very positive steerer. I don't think you needed to turn that boat so much to surf but, compared to the other girls, she turns a lot less and she got a flag. It's a subjective thing and she did the right thing and she got on with it. Being professional is very, very important because that's what makes the difference - it's not when things are good but it's when things go wrong - how you deal with it. Towards the end of the games we had a lot of walks and a lot of talks and it was all the psychology that I was helping her with. The technical stuff was put in place a long time before that really."

And the technical stuff was all very good. Having done her penalty for the Yellow flag Lily headed to the leeward mark but two boats were overlapped on her and she needed to break the overlap quickly. Jon brings this moment up, and it is clear that he believes it was one of the pivotal moments in the race. It showed a lot about her proactive attitude, decisiveness, her ability to adjust to her new circumstances, and also the importance of learning from past mistakes.

"We'd had exactly the same situation in China in training," Jon explains, "but I think she probably didn't want to risk damaging boats so she let a couple of people in at the mark. We were training with the standard rig boys at the time and I went up to her afterwards and said that you just can't do that, you have to be absolutely sure you're safe before you bear away.

"And I remember at the time she didn't understand why I seemed so  - I don't know how you'd say it - why I seemed so emotional. But I just know that you train like you race and you race like you train, and you just can't do those things."

Lijia XuHaving regained the lead, she never relinquished it. Annalise Murphy again made a lot of ground on the second beat, but her downwind pace and strategy didn't work and Lijia Xu sailed brilliantly to lead the fleet home.

There's no doubt, talking to Jon, that a coach's lot is tough. "It was a pretty strange medal race for me." he says, "It's always difficult because you've done everything you can do and you just have to sit back and watch like everyone else."

But it is clear that he takes great satisfaction from knowing he played a significant role in Lijia Xu's achievement, and there's evidence of it in so many ways. "It's interesting, if you watch Lily's interview, I think she more or less said word for word what I said. And then if you listen to both Evi (Van Acker, who won bronze) and Marit (Bouwmeester, who won silver) I'm 90% sure they were saying word for word what Will and Mark (their coaches) say because I know the other coaches very well. And Annalise didn't do the interview which I also thought was interesting. It was done by somebody else."

It helps that Jon is a World class Radial sailor himself. "I did a lot of sailing against Lily" he says, "and I was actually amazed at the very beginning about what she didn't know - like when to put the kicker on pre-start, this sort of stuff. When you're in another (Laser Radial) you can really tell whether they're going fast or slow, or high or low, in a way that you can't tell very easily in a RIB.

"I remember once she came in to the windward mark just in front of me on port and she tacked and tried to do the bear away around the windward mark without letting the kicker off first. And it was so obvious to me how slow she was because I literally nearly crashed into the back of her! From a rib that wouldn't have been obvious.

"Ironically we also did a lot of match racing, Lily and I, on the medal race area in case we needed to. We also did some in Shang Hai and I spent a lot of time chasing Lily around a start boat, very similar to what was happening with Ben and his match race in the Finn. I'm sure the other Chinese were wondering what on earth we were doing, but I think that probably gave her the confidence going in to the series that if it was close she would have a good chance in match race."

And now he's back, coaching two sailors looking for success in Rio. Lijia Xu has just returned, and Jon says they've a lot to do in a short space of time. "We're in a very, very different situation now because Lily should have started sailing again two years ago and we're very, very short on time. She capsized tacking and all sorts of stuff at the Worlds - it was horrible, horrible to watch! She used to be a very good starter, and I know she can get there if we have enough time.

"I'm very thankful she doesn't seem to have lost the feel upwind. Downwind we have a lot of work to do and that is something we need to address, but she's still got the steering so we don't need to worry about it too much.

"I'm also working with a young girl called Oren Jacob who is trying to qualify for her first Olympics but she's making it very, very stressful for me!" He (half) jokes. "She's making it stressful for herself as well. She missed qualification in Santander - and this is absolutely true - she lost it on the last race at the last mark on the last gybe, giving water to the girl who took the last Olympic place. That was pretty hard going as a coach, and it was pretty hard for her, but at least she can hike really hard and do something about it. She had a really good start in the last race but it was quite windy and she couldn't quite hang on."

It's going to be exciting watching how these two athletes progress over the next 7 or 8 months. They've a lot of work to do, but given the history how many would back against them producing something just as special as London 2012?



Notes:

There was so much great material from Jon's interview, I've broken it down into three parts. This one covers his Olympic coaching; the previous part covered his progress into sailing; and the next covers lots of tips and advice on a whole range of sailing topics

You can read more about Jon on his website, or you can like his Facebook page, or you can visit his YouTube channel which has loads of great coaching videos on a range of topics.

Or you could buy one of his books:

Coach Yourself to Win


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Sailing Coach


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland

Be Your Own Tactics Coach


The United States
Great Britain and Ireland


Jon kindly forwarded the email he sent to Lily on the morning of the medal race. It is only three lines, reminding her of the three things that would be important on the day. No long messages that would be impossible to remember, no frills, just the essential information that she'd need. Here's what he wrote:
1. The wind will be shifty and there will be large pressure differences across the course, especially near the windward mark - so get your head out of the boat.
2. I would expect more shifts and gusts on the right hand side of the course but do not go too far inshore.
3. Current will not be important

As Jon said to me: "We had done all the hard work beforehand!"

2 thoughts on “Jon Emmett Interview Part 2: Lijia Xu and the 2012 Medal Race

  1. Thanks for this series – great stuff.

    I was lucky enough to spend several days with Lily in Abu Dhabi when we were both attending an umpiring clinic. She is incredibly down-to-earth and a totally decent human being.

  2. Thanks Blake.

    I remember you writing briefly about meeting her – it must have been very interesting. For those that haven’t seen Blake’s post you can find it here

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