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31 July 2008, 12:45 pm
Andreas Kosmatopoulos: A lifelong Olympic ambition...
Andreas Kosmatopoulos at the 2007 ISAF Sailing World Championships
Andreas Kosmatopoulos at the 2007 ISAF Sailing World Championships

2008 Beijing Olympic Games

"We did it again...See you in China", wrote Andreas Kosmatopoulos recently on his website. He did it not once, but five times!
At the Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma, 39 year old Andreas KOSMATOPOULOS managed to qualify himself for his fifth Olympic participation in row. That is an amazing record in the 470 class history. Just before the start of Semaine Olympique Hyères, the multiple Olympian talked about his lifelong Olympic ambition. "But first of all, I would like to thank my crew members from over the years. They helped me to be in the Olympics for five times. They trusted me not only for my skills, but also for my ability to return safely to shore…", said Kosmatopoulos.

He recalled his most scary moment: "As we made all those years our preparation and practice mostly by ourselves, there were many times that we experienced great dangers on the water due to bad weather. The most frightening situation was back in December 1999 in Melbourne. On the same day that disaster struck the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, we were practicing in Melbourne's Black Rock yacht club. As we were alone on the water training in a comfortable sea breeze, the sky turned to black... Immediately we decided to return to the harbor, which was a mile away. The wind died [not a good sign] and we could see the dark clouds running so fast. The sea underneath us turned to white, lifted up highly and was united with the sky. A wall of anger full of uncontrolled power was approaching our small 470 dinghy.

"Second action was to drop all the sails, but in a few seconds we were well inside a strong gale or whatever worse. We capsized and our concern was to stay in contact and keep the boat capsized during the first stroke. I said to Kostas we have to keep it like this as long as we can. The water swallowed and we could end on top of the rocks if we flip over again and again. We stayed capsized about 45 to 50 minutes, [it seemed to me a year!!] and the rain and hail were really painful in our faces. Then when the wind force stabilized and dropped a bit, we up righted the boat, but the jib was completely ripped. We had to reach back to the harbor, so we lifted the main till the top batten and with this small sail area we managed to return in one piece. I remember me holding the end of the top batten to control the sail and Kostas keeping the rest of the sail from the middle to keep it folded.

"We respect the sea and we know that nature force is well above human limits. The only solution is to go with her flow, be defensive and read the signs. In the afternoon, we watched the news regarding the Sydney - Hobart fatal storm. Since then, sadness comes back in memory when we recall those days. Nature won

Kosmatopoulos has been on the National Greek Team since 1982 in various classes. He started his career with winning the National Optimist Championship in 1982. Athanasios PACHOUMAS was the first to crew for him on the 470. The two of them finished 17th at the Olympic Games of 1992 in Barcelona. After his Olympic debut, Kosmatopoulos teamed up with Konstantinos TRIGONIS. It was a successful combination, as they won the World title in 1995 and silver at the 470 Europeans and Worlds in 2002. They lead the ISAF World Sailing Ranking in 1995-96 and in 2001. They also represented their country at three Olympic Games, with an eighth position in Sydney as their best result. After Athens in 2004, it was Andreas PAPADOPOULOS who started to crew for Kosmatopoulos.

"I just want to enjoy every single day and I feel blessed still being able to sail and compete in high level races against youngsters," says Kosmatopoulos.

'Magic moment'

According to Kosmatopoulos, every Olympic qualification has been a 'magic moment': "I always had to win the selections, as formulated by the Greek Federation or Olympic Committee. The first time was back in 1992, when we made it in the very last race of the World Championships in Cadiz. The following years, it remained something 'magic', but the last one was quite difficult. I changed crew after 11 years of co-operation with Kostandinos, so I had to start over again at the age of 37."

Kosmatopoulos and Papadopoulos worked hard, which was rewarded with an 11th position in Palma at this year's Princess Sofia Trophy. That was enough to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Kosmatopoulos: "When the four event selection came down to the last regatta in Palma, I said to myself: 'Five days of competition for four years of effort'. So, I dreamt it first and did it next. If I look back to all the failures, tears and pain, I say to myself once more: 'It was worth it, thanks god I didn't quit'. I am so proud."

The fact he didn't quit or swap boats in all those years, is pretty unique. "In Greece there are not a lot of opportunities", explains Kosmatopoulos. "There is only very little support for those people who switch Olympic classes."

Changes and growth

Sixteen long seasons of high level competition separate Kosmatopoulos' first and fifth Olympic Games. However, there haven't been that many differences between his first and last campaign: "The biggest change is my experience and deep knowledge of what the selection and Olympics are about. There haven't been much modifications on organizational level."
He describes his personal growth during that extensive period of professional sailing, as followed: "Learning, thinking, working and acting. In that order."

Kosmatopoulos considers the Olympics as a celebration: "Sports in general are a way to improve as human beings. Regarding to sailing, it is the most complete sport. It is based on experience and includes determination. In addition, sailors bring a huge knowledge of theory into practice." After so many years, his Olympic dream has evolved into a certain life style: "I just want to enjoy every single day and I feel blessed still being able to sail and compete in high level races against youngsters."

Back in the 1990s, Benny KOUWENHOVEN and Jan KOUWENHOVEN from the Netherlands belonged to the international top of the 470 fleet. The Dutch brothers won the Worlds in 1994 and 1996. The 1995 title went to Kosmatopoulos. Benny Kouwenhoven: "I can't believe he qualified himself for his fifth Olympics. That's a huge achievement." Benny remembers those days they were battling with the Greek: "They were good in light and medium conditions. We were better in medium to heavy weather."

To the question what it takes to remain at the top for such a long time, Kouwenhoven says: "Once you are on a certain level, you need to improve your equipment continuously. It is important to have enough speed. Especially in small fleets." The former champs are still sailing a 470: "I bought a second hand boat of only two years old, so hopefully we can compete against the national team at the Dutch Nationals."

Ups and downs

Just like everybody else, an athlete experiences ups and downs throughout his or her career. Kosmatopoulos considers their gold medal at the 1995 Worlds as a highlight: "Now it will be my fifth Games. Winning the Worlds was a moment in time, but Olympic competition has lasted all my life." According to Kouwenhoven, a World title means you are the best of the best: "There are more competitors. Not everybody makes it to the Olympic Games, but everybody participates at the Worlds."

Kosmatopoulos calls the Athens Olympics his worst experience so far. "We dropped from a third place after four races down to an 18th position. That was an unexpected result", said Kosmatopoulos.

To the question whether he will retire from 470 sailing after Beijing, he answers: "You never know what life or a wind shift will bring you…" Even at the age of 39, Kosmatopoulos has still an Olympic future full of chances. Paul FOERSTER for example, was in the same age (39) when he became Olympic Champion in Athens. His crew Kevin BURNHAM was not only the oldest competitor (48), but also the oldest gold medallist in the Greek capital. After the final gun, Burnham became famous for of his back-flip off the golden 470. This picture was published all over the world. The 'old timers' had showed the power of experience, knowledge, determination and passion.

Diana Bogaards (originally published in 470 eTimes May 2008)
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