As the world turns its attention to Beijing and the 2008 Olympic Games, sailing in China has never had a higher profile. Leading the red tide is Laser Radial star XU, still just 19 but already China's first-ever World Champion in an Olympic Class.
With three bullets from six races so far, XU ties for the lead in the Laser Radial fleet and could be in an even better position were it not for a black flag in race 5 (when she was called off the course at the top mark she was in the lead). Worryingly for the competition, she does not feel she has even hit top gear yet.
'Not good enough,' was her analysis of her performance to date. 'I think I can do even better.'
Appropriately XU first made her mark on the sailing world in Qingdao, the host city for the eleven sailing events at the 2008 Olympic Games. There she finished as top girl in the 2001 Optimist World Championship, a feat she repeated a year later in Texas, USA.
And it is Qingdao that is currently featuring heavily on XU's mind. Despite the fact that Cascais is a notoriously windy venue, she has had preciously little practice in heavy conditions since sailing in Hyères back in April, 'We trained with light wind every day,' she said of her summer schedule with the Chinese team, 'So I just paid more attention on the physical training to prepare for this regatta.'
XU started sailing when, aged ten, she missed out in the qualifiers for the Shanghai swimming team. Ironically she was considered too short, although now, at close to 6 foot, she towers above almost everyone else in the Laser Radial fleet.
Despite not making the Shanghai team, it was still at the swimming pool that XU's future sporting success was born. There she was spotted by Shanghai Optimist coach Zhang JING, who was impressed by the attentiveness of the young XU. JING introduced XU to the Optimist and she explains matter-of-factly, 'I enjoyed it and so started my sailing life.'
|At the Youth Worlds in 2005
© Peter Bentley
She became one of JING's pupils and rapidly rose through the rankings, with success culminating at the two World Championships in Qingdao and Texas. From there she moved to the Europe dinghy and it was not until December 2005, following a fourth place at the Europe Worlds in Rizhao, that she fully made the switch to the Olympic Class Laser Radial.
However, even before she had focused her efforts and sailing the Radial, she had achieved notable success in the class. At the 2005 Volvo Youth Sailing ISAF World Championship in Busan, Korea, XU pushed Paige RAILEY (USA) all the way in an incredibly tight series, eventually winning the silver medal - the first-ever medal for China at the Youth Worlds.
From there RAILEY went on to dominate the first year of the Laser Radial being an Olympic Class, but has faded from the limelight over recent months. After also getting black flagged in race 5 today, the American lies back in 23rd place and XU predicts her main challenge for the title will come from elsewhere. As well as Tania ELIAS CALLES (MEX), who ties for the lead, and third-place Sophie DE TURCKHEIM (FRA), she named Evi VAN ACKER (BEL) as the competitor to keep an eye on in the gold fleet, calling her 'the strongest opponent of the Laser Radial fleet.'
Both VAN ACKER and ELIAS CALLES were amongst XU's strongest challengers at 2006 Laser Radial Worlds in Marina del Rey, but in the end, neither could match her consistency in the moderate and shifty conditions. XU won the 2006 World title with a race to spare and looks well on the way to a similar performance in the stronger winds in Cascais.
|XU on her way to a bullet on day one in Cascais
Her World Championship win lifted her to celebrity status at last year's Olympic Test Event in Qingdao, but in a regatta sailed in mainly light winds she struggled. XU eventually finished ninth overall and despite being the 2006 World Champion, her place in Qingdao next year is far from assured. At the Chinese nationals this year XU only finish third, perhaps the reason why she remains so cautious about her success here in Cascais so far, 'My weakness is all about the light winds,' she says, 'so I can't see the progress after the summer training! I'm eager to see if I can sail well in the light winds.'
Although XU remains modest about her own achievements, there is no doubt that her success and that of other Chinese sailors like Athens silver medallist Jian YIN (CHN), is a massive boost to the sport in her country.
'Because of the Olympics in China I think sailing is more popular than before, especially in Qingdao,' she explained. 'Every elementary school or middle-school or started to enjoy the sport of sailing every weekend so especially in the summer holidays. It seems like we are known by more people - the sport and also ourselves. That's a great thing for every Chinese sailor - they want to do their best to let more and more people in China to know this sport.'
Certainly for the world of sailing, XU's success and the Qingdao-led growth of the sport in China is fantastic news. But where XU is concerned, not such good news perhaps for the rest of the Laser Radial fleet…
Over 1,300 sailors from 76 nations are competing at the 2007 ISAF Sailing World Championships, from 28 June-13 July in Cascais, Portugal. 'The Wind Is Calling' is the official motto for the 2007 Worlds. The Championships are the principal qualification regatta for the 2008 Olympic Sailing Competition, with 75% of all national places to be decided.
Read our fleet by fleet reports by clicking on the links below:
Finn - Tornado - Yngling - Star - 49er - 470s - Lasers - RS:Xs
For all the news on the ISAF Sailing World Championships 2007 CLICK HERE.